Afghan President Hamid Karzai was moved to a safe area and his palace went into lockdown as the capital was hit by a wave of attacks including a failed attempt to target one of his deputies, officials said.
Insurgents armed with heavy machineguns, rocket propelled grenades and suicide vests launched what the Taliban spokesman said was a “coordinated attack” in Kabul and three eastern towns near the capital.
Taliban insurgents claimed responsibility for the multiple assaults.
In Kabul the insurgents took up positions in construction sites overlooking government buildings, diplomatic missions and other high profile targets, unleashing a stand-off with security forces throughout the afternoon and evening.
“These attacks are the beginning of the spring offensive and we had planned them for months,” Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid told Reuters.
He said the onslaught was revenge for a series of incidents involving American troops in Afghanistan - including the burning of Qurans at a NATO base and the massacre of 17 civilians by a U.S. soldier - and vowed that there would be more such attacks.
The Afghan Ministry of Interior said initial intelligence pointed to the involvement of the militant Haqqani Network, a hardcore Taliban branch accused of masterminding most of the high-profile attacks in Kabul and known to have close links to al-Qaeda.
“It’s too early to say, but the initial findings show the Haqqanis were involved,” Ministry of Interior Sediq Sediqqi said.
One of President Hamid Karzai’s two deputies, Mohammad Karim Khalili, was a target of the coordinated suicide attacks, an intelligence official said.
Lutfullah Mashal, a spokesman for the Directorate of National Security (NDS), said the group supposed to attack Khalili’s home in West Kabul was captured before reaching their target.
“Two suicide bombers and another armed individual were captured. They were intending to attack the home of Mr. Khalili. They were armed with suicide vests, guns and other explosives,” Mashal said.
Witnesses said suicide bombers had taken over the newly-built Kabul Star hotel, which was reportedly on fire in an area which includes a major U.S. military base, the United Nations office and the presidential palace.
At least eight attackers died in the wave of attacks, police said as fighting continued to rage in parts of the city.
Five civilians and more than a dozen members of the Afghan security forces including the head of the Kabul’s quick reaction police force were wounded, security officials told AFP.
Meanwhile, several other attackers tried to enter the Afghan parliament but were engaged by security forces and driven back, an official said.
They had taken cover in a building near the parliament and fights were ongoing, parliamentary media officer Qudratullah Jawid told AFP.
A Taliban spokesman also told news agencies that the insurgents had attacked the heavily-guarded Palace compound of the Afghan President, although this was yet to be verified.
As the attacks began, several large explosions and bursts of gunfire were heard near the United States embassy.
The U.S. embassy is currently in lockdown. All the staff were accounted for and safe, with no reports of injuries, spokesman Gavin Sundwall said.
The incidents come as Taliban militants pledge their attacks as part of their annual spring offensive, heralding the so-called “fighting season.”
A Taliban spokesman in a mobile phone text message said “a lot of suicide bombers” are involved in the attack.
The first blasts struck the Wazir Akbar Khan neighborhood of central Kabul, home to a number of embassies and a NATO base. Gunfire erupted soon after the explosions, forcing people out in the street to quickly take cover.
Smoke could be seen rising from a few buildings in the neighborhood as sirens wailed.
The locations under attack included the offices of the provincial governor in Logar, police headquarters, a U.S. base, all close to each other, deputy provincial police chief, Raees Khan told AFP. A gunfight was underway, he added.
Attackers also fired a rocket-propelled grenade into a house used by British diplomats in the center of the Afghan capital, Kabul, as part of the coordinated assault.
All British embassy staff in Kabul were "accounted for," officials reported.
They also fired rockets at the parliament building, in the west of the city, and at the Russian embassy, a spokesman for the parliament said.
Several Afghan lawmakers have joined security forces and fought back against Taliban insurgents, MPs said.
"I'm the representative of my people and I have to defend them," Kandahar lawmaker Naeem Hameedzai Lalai told Reuters.
Smoke appeared to be billowing from the nearby German embassy as well, Reuters witnesses said.
The police also confirmed that suicide bombers attacked Jalalabad airport in eastern Afghanistan.
Four bombers were stopped at the gate as they tried to enter the airport and two detonated their explosives while the other two were wounded and arrested, General Jahangir Azimi, head of police at the airport, told AFP.
Militants who had staked out positions in a tall building were firing rockets in different directions, according to an Associated Press reporter at the scene.
Insurgents also occupied a four-floor building near the compound of the chief of police in the eastern Afghan province of Paktia.
A helicopter gunship from Afghanistan's NATO-led force was firing at the building in the province on the Pakistani border.
This is the first attack in Kabul since a shooting inside the Ministry of Interior in February in which a ministry employee turned a gun on NATO advisers and shot two soldiers dead.