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Taliban Attack in Kabul Leaves at Least 19 Dead

The coordinated attacks struck in the heart of Kabul,
underscoring the reach of the Taliban beyond strongholds in the south and east.
They come at a time of worsening security in the country and a day before Richard
Holbrooke, the new U.S. special envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan, was expected
to visit the capital.

Eight assailants also died in the attacks, Defense Ministry
spokesman Gen. Mohammad Zahir Azimi told the Associated Press. All eight
attackers had suicide vests, but only three assailants set them off, he said.

Five men with assault rifles and grenades attacked the
Justice Ministry in late morning and they appeared to control it for at least a
short period.

Intermittent gunfire could be heard outside the ministry as
police scaled the building using ladders to try and enter from its top floor
windows, a Reuters witness said.

About two hours after the attacks began, Afghan security
forces waved from windows in an apparent all-clear sign, according to an AP reporter
on the scene.

Justice Minister Sarwar Danesh spoke to The Associated Press
while he was briefly trapped inside the ministry with a number of government

“They used grenades and AK-47s,” Danesh said of
the attackers, speaking by mobile phone.

A worker said he scrambled out of a second-floor window to
escape a gunman.

“I came out of my office to see what was going on, and
I saw a man with an AK-47 shooting at every employee he saw in the hall,”
said ministry employee Nazir Mohammad, shaking as he spoke.

Four would-be suicide bombers were shot dead by security
guards inside the Justice Ministry and one more outside the building, while
another militant was gunned down by police outside the nearby Ministry of
Education, a security official told Reuters.

“During the operations, four terrorists were killed
inside the Justice Ministry. Our operations still continue,” Zemarai
Bashary, interior ministry spokesman said, adding he had no further details
about casualties.

In the north Kabul suburb of Khair Khana, two suicide
bombers blew themselves up inside a Prisons Department building, killing at
least eight police officers and numerous civilians, a senior police official
told Reuters on condition of anonymity, adding that the attacks were coordinated.

A third would-be bomber escaped, a policeman at the scene

In a third incident near the Education Ministry, police shot
dead another attacker, police officer Zulmay Khan told the AP. No one else was
reported to have been killed at that scene and it was unclear if he was
targeting the Education Ministry, which is very close to the Justice Ministry.

Taliban spokesman Zabiullah Mujaheed said the attacks were
in response to the alleged mistreatment of Taliban prisoners in Afghan
government jails.

“We have warned the Afghan government to stop torturing
our prisoners,” Mujaheed told the AP in a phone call from an undisclosed
location. “Today we attacked Justice Ministry compounds.”

The Taliban regularly uses suicide bombings in assaults on
Afghan and foreign troops, but the heavily barricaded capital had been largely
spared of major attacks recently.

Overthrown in a U.S.-led invasion in 2001, the Taliban has made
a comeback in recent years, carrying out a series of high-profile attacks in
several parts of the country, including Kabul, since last year.

With Taliban and al-Qaida violence rising in Afghanistan,
President Barack Obama plans to send as many as 30,000 additional forces this

On Wednesday, Russia said it might offer its military
aircraft and allow munitions to be shipped over its territory to help supply
NATO-led soldiers fighting in Afghanistan, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said.

The Kremlin views Afghanistan as an area where Russian
interests coincide with those of the United States, despite fierce
disagreements on other issues.

Supplying the forces has become increasingly tenuous as
insurgents intensify attacks on supply lines through Pakistan — the primary
route for U.S. supplies. Transit routes through Russia and the possibly through
the Central Asia nations of Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan would serve as key
alternatives to Pakistan routes.

Adding further to the uncertainty is the decision last week
by another Central Asian nation, Kyrgyzstan, to evict U.S. forces from an air
base that is important to U.S. operations in Afghanistan.

U.S. officials suspect that Moscow, which promised billions
in aid and loans for impoverished Kyrgyzstan, was behind the decision to close
the Manas base.

Kyrgyzstan’s president accused the United States on Wednesday
of refusing to heed repeated calls to pay more rent for its air base in his
country but did not say if he would welcome a fresh U.S. offer.

President Kurmanbek Bakiyev said last week he would evict
U.S. forces from Manas, an important staging post for U.S.-led operations in
Afghanistan. He made the announcement in Moscow after securing more than $2
billion in Russian aid and credit.

The impoverished former Soviet republic has yet to say when
the base would be officially shut, leading some observers to suggest it may
still reverse the decision.

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