Suicide bombers have struck across Afghanistan in co-ordinated attacks, with explosions and gunfire rocking the diplomatic area of Kabul as Taliban fighters took over buildings and tried to enter parliament.
Outside the capital on Sunday, attackers also targeted government buildings in Logar province, the airport in Jalalabad, and a police facility in the town of Gardez in Paktya province.
A Taliban spokesman said the violence marked the start of their annual spring offensive which heralds the fighting season, adding that "a lot of suicide bombers" were involved.
The attacks which are among the most serious on the capital since US-backed Afghan forces removed the group from power in 2001.
The gunmen are located in a building there and there is still fighting going on in front of parliament.
A spokesman for International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) said there were no reports of casualties in the attacks on possibly seven locations in Kabul, and the US embassy said in a statement all its staff were accounted for and safe.
The Taliban said the main targets were the German and British embassies, and the headquarters of Afghanistan's NATO-led force.
Several Afghan members of parliament joined security forces repelling attackers from a roof near the parliament.
Azimy said that Afghan police had arrested 15 would-be suicide bombers in northern Afghanistan who were trying to launch attacks in Kunduz province. There were reports of the arrest of suicide bombers in other areas.
The co-ordinated attacks are bound to intensify concern in the run-up to the planned withdrawal of foreign combat troops by the end of 2014.
The assault appeared to repeat the tactics of an attack in Kabul last September when fighters entered construction sites in several places to use them as positions for rocket and gun attacks.
Taliban spokesman Mujahid said it had been easy to bring fighters into the capital, and that they had had inside help to move heavy weapons into place.
Afghan security forces, who are responsible for the safety of the capital, were scrambling to reinforce areas around the so-called "Green Zone" diplomatic section of the city centre.
Attackers fired a rocket-propelled grenade that landed just outside the front gate of a house used by British diplomats in the city centre and smoke billowed from the area after the blast, a witness told the Reuters news agency.
Two rockets hit a British embassy guard tower near the Reuters office in the city, with embassy sources saying staff were in a lock-down.
Fighting was going on at some NATO facilities, ISAF said via Twitter.
A US defence official who declined to be identified said the attackers were using mostly small arms and rocket-propelled grenades, and "perhaps even suicide bombers".
Three rockets hit a supermarket that is popular with foreigners near the German embassy, witnesses said.
Smoke rose from the vicinity of the embassy while women scurried for cover as gunfire crackled.
As the shooting went on, US army convoys could be seen coming to the area accompanied by Afghan police in flak jackets.
Staff at the embassies were not available for comment.
Attackers also fired rockets at the parliament building in the west of Kabul, and at the Russian embassy, a spokesman for the parliament said.
Most MPs had left the building before it came under attack, said a politician. However, one of several who fought back from a roof, Naeem Hameedzai, told Reuters: "I'm the representative of my people and I have to defend them."
Afghan media said Taliban fighters had stormed the Star Hotel complex near the presidential palace and the Iranian embassy.
Windows of the hotel were blown out and smoke billowed from the building.
In the eastern province of Paktia, NATO helicopter gunships attacked Taliban fighters holed up in a building next to a construction site while in the eastern city of Jalalabad.
A Reuters witness said that Taliban attacked a foreign force base near a school in the city.
One Taliban fighter was killed, another blew himself up and a third was captured. A blast also went off near the airport in Jalalabad, a witness said.
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|Timothy V. Gatto|