Taliban militants launched a brazen series of attacks in the Afghan capital Monday, including an assault just 50 feet from the gates of the presidential palace. Hundreds of Afghan commandos descended on the scene, attempting to protect Pashtunistan Square, which encircles the Central Bank, Ministry of Justice and the palace of President Hamid Karzai, who was inside swearing in new cabinet ministers, reported the Associated Press.
A presidential spokesman told news agencies the ceremony continued as scheduled and that everyone in the palace remained unharmed.
The first blast was heard just before 10 a.m. local time. A rocket crashed into the street near the Central Bank, though the AP said that conflicting reports have emerged about whether it was a grenade or suicide bomber that caused the explosion.
Police sealed off a large area in the capital’s center as a raging gun battle filled the streets. One shopping center near the Justice Ministry was engulfed in flames after militants reportedly entered the building and set off grenades.
Later, two suicide bombers detonated themselves and two other militants were killed by Afghan troops inside the mall.
Reports vary on the number of casualties, but Afghan officials told the New York Times that three soldiers and two civilians were killed, and at least 71 people were wounded.
The Taliban claimed responsibility for the attack, a spokesman told news organizations.
“We are ready to fight, and we have the strength to fight, and nobody from the Taliban side is ready to make any kind of deal,” said Zabihullah Mujahid, a spokesman for the Taliban, according to the Times.
Hours after the attack, sporadic machine gunfire and explosions continued to echo through the Afghan capital. The Defense Ministry said that seven attackers were taken down during the initial fighting, which was the biggest assault on Kabul since the Oct. 28 attack when gunmen stormed a guest house occupied by United Nations staff. At least 11 people were killed in that attack, including three U.N. staffers.
Monday’s attack appears to be part of the Taliban’s increasingly aggressive strategy challenging Afghan and international forces as the U.S. and NATO prepare to send an additional 37,000 troops to Afghanistan.
“They are a desperate people; they are ruthless,” said Richard Holbrooke, the U.S. special envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan. “The people who are doing this certainly will not survive the attack, nor will they succeed. But we can expect these sort of things on a regular basis.”