Eight Taliban militants armed with hand grenades, AK-47 assault rifles and suicide vests stormed into three Afghan government buildings today, killing at least 20 and injuring 57, according to the Afghan Interior Ministry.
The coordinated attacks, which began shortly after 10 a.m. local time, targeted Afghanistan's Justice Ministry, Education Ministry and the prisons department building, three months after Kabul police clamped down on Taliban prisoners inside the city's jails.
The Taliban claimed the attack was in response to the "mistreatment" of Taliban prisoners.
Another attacker wearing a suicide vest was shot as he tried to force his way into the Education Ministry.
Today's attacks pierced part of Kabul's highest security area, yet another sign that this country is suffering from a Taliban movement that has more reach than at any point since the war began more than seven years ago.
Across many parts of the country the Taliban have never been stronger and, in a call today to ABC News, they claimed that a total of 20 suicide bombers had recently entered Kabul. There is no way to independently verify the claim, designed to create widespread fear.
For a few hours, that fear paralyzed much of downtown Kabul, including the areas near the presidential palace and the highly guarded Serena Hotel, which is down the street from the Justice Ministry.
Police, soldiers and Afghan special forces surrounded the Justice Ministry building after the initial suicide attack. Four militants approached the building, police officials told ABC News. One blew himself up and the other three entered the building, going door to door and killing anyone inside, witnesses said.
"I heard gunfire in the hallway outside our office and a big explosion and I saw someone with an AK-47 running around shooting anyone in front of him," Mohammadullah Khan, a Justice Department official who was in the building at the time, told ABC News. "I quickly turned off the light and jumped out of the window."
ABC News Film Confiscated
The siege inside the building, not dissimilar to the one carried out by militants at Mumbai hotels in November, lasted at least two hours.
At one point during that time, Afghan special forces pointed their guns at a crowd that had gathered to watch. They then pointed their guns at an ABC News cameraman and an ABC News reporter, grabbing their jackets and wrestling the camera to the ground. They yelled that no filming was allowed and confiscated the tape inside the camera.
On the north side of town, two men with suicide vests attacked the prisons department. There, at least 10 were killed and 30 injured, police officials told ABC News.
The attacks were the second and third suicide bombings in the middle of Kabul in the last five weeks. In January, a suicide bomber blew himself up on the road between the German Embassy and the headquarters for international forces, killing more than five people in the most secure area in the city. But today's attack was far more sophisticated.
Amrullah Saleh, the chief of Afghan intelligence, told reporters that the attackers appeared to have a Pakistan connection. "As they were entering the Ministry of Justice and before starting their indiscriminate killing of the civilians there, they sent three messages to Pakistan calling for the blessing of their mastermind, and we are working on that angle of it as well," he said.
In a recent ABC News poll, only one in three Afghans said they believe the Taliban can be defeated. The United States is sending in as many as 30,000 more troops to try and stop the Taliban's momentum. Last year was by far the most violent year for civilians and troops of the seven-year war.
"There are many areas in this country, and we know they're mostly in the south and the east where the foundational security is not there for better governance or better growth," Gen. David McKiernan, the head of U.S. and international forces in Afghanistan, said in an interview this week. "So I think there is a feeling among all, including myself, that we would like to be further along."
Residents widely describe Kabul as being under increasing threat.
"There is no security beyond Kabul, and even in the Kabul City, you are having a lot of risk if you are roaming around at night or in the suburbs," said Mahmood Gialani, a member of parliament.
It is a feeling that has created a remarkable drop in confidence across the country. In 2005, 77 percent of Afghans told ABC News pollsters they thought the country was headed in the right direction. Today, 44 percent say so.
Personal Security Is No Better
"National security is better here. But personal security isn't," William Wood, the U.S. ambassador here, said in an interview. "And, of course, personal security is critical to the hope and confidence of the people."