KABUL - Suicide bombers struck across Afghanistan in coordinated attacks Sunday, with explosions and gunfire rocking the diplomatic enclave in the capital as militants took over buildings and tried to enter parliament.
Outside the capital, attackers also targeted government buildings in Logar province, the airport in Jalalabad, and a police facility in the town of Gardez in Paktya province.
Taliban insurgents claimed the attacks with a spokesman saying they marked the start of their annual spring offensive which heralds the fighting season, adding that "a lot of suicide bombers" were involved.
NATO has about 130,000 troops supporting the government of President Hamid Karzai against the Taliban insurgency, but they will pull out by the end of 2014, handing control of security to Afghan forces.
A spokesman for NATO's International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) told AFP that Afghan forces, whose ability to withstand the Taliban after 2014 has been questioned, were taking the lead in countering the assaults on Kabul.
But the latest in a series of spectacular attacks show militants still have the ability to strike at the heart of the capital and raise fears over the precarious security situation as NATO troop withdrawal approaches.
In September last year Taliban attacks targeting locations including the US embassy and headquarters of foreign troops in Kabul killed at least 14 during a 19-hour siege. And in August, nine people were killed when suicide bombers attacked the British Council cultural centre.
On Sunday several attackers tried to enter the Afghan parliament but were engaged by security forces and driven back, parliamentary media officer Qudratullah Jawid told AFP. They had taken cover in a building near the parliament, he said.
MP Mohammad Naeem Lalai told AFP lawmakers joined the security forces in firing on militants as they tried to storm the parliament, which was in session.
At least two attackers were killed, interior ministry spokesman Sediq Sediqqi said, as militants targeted several areas of the city.
"Near the parliament, the first floor of a neighbouring building has been taken by police and one terrorist is dead," said Kabul police chief Mohammad Ayoubi Salangi.
In two other areas of the city militants had taken positions in tall buildings and were firing, he said.
A police spokesman retracted an earlier report that the Kabul Star Hotel had been taken over and was on fire, saying the militants had occupied a neighbouring building.
The main area under attack was close to the embassies of the United States, Britain, Germany and Iran, as well as offices of the United Nations, NATO's UNAMA, the ISAF-run Camp Eggers, the entrance to the presidential palace.
The French, Turkish and Chinese embassies are not far from the site.
A police spokesman said the areas under attack were the diplomatic enclave of Wazir Akbar Khan in the centre, parliament in the west and District Nine in the south, where there are several foreign military bases.
South of Kabul in Logar province, several suicide attackers entered government buildings, including the offices of the provincial governor, police headquarters and a US base, deputy provincial police chief, Raees Khan told AFP.
In eastern Afghanistan two suicide bombers blew themselves up at the gates of Jalalabad airport, wounding several people, General Jahangir Azimi, the airport's head of police said.
In Gardez, in the eastern province of Paktya, multiple Taliban gunmen - believed to be armed with suicide vests - launched an attack on a police training centre, Rohullah Samoon the provincial spokesman told AFP.
They occupied a building overseeing the facility and opened fire with machine-guns, he said, wounding four civilians.
As the Kabul attacks began, several large explosions and bursts of gunfire were heard near the United States embassy.
The embassy sounded alarms and warned staff to take cover. Embassy spokesman Gavin Sundwall said the building was in lockdown but all staff were accounted for and safe, with no reports of injuries.
The German, Japanese and Russian embassies were also targeted although no casualties were immediately reported.
A German foreign ministry spokesman said the "grounds of the German embassy" had sustained damage but that "as far as we know (there have been) no injuries".
Japan's Kyodo news agency said three rockets landed in the Japanese embassy but nobody was hurt and staff had evacuated to a nearby air raid shelter.
Zabihullah Mujahed, the Taliban spokesman, told AFP by phone from an unknown location, the attacks were a message to the Kabul government and its Western military backers.
"The Kabul administration and the invading forces had said some times ago that the Taliban will not be able to launch a spring offensive. Today's attacks were the start of our spring offensive," he said.