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AFP, January 18, 2010

Kabul shuts down as Taliban target city centre

The acrid stench of cordite hung in the clear blue winter sky after a blinding flash announced the latest eruption of Taliban violence in the Afghanistan capital, driving residents and shoppers scurrying for safety.

Kabul under attack
Afghan security forces gather at the scene of attack in central Kabul, Afghanistan, Monday, Jan. 18, 2010. Taliban militants struck the heart of the Afghan government in Kabul on Monday, prompting fierce gunbattles after a suicide bomber blew himself up near the presidential palace. (Photo: AP)

Sirens sounded through the deserted streets as ambulances and fire engines sped towards the main fighting in Pashtunistan Square where Taliban militants laid siege to major buildings in the heart of the capital.

A massive explosion shook the city as television pictures showed one of Kabul's few shopping malls burning and billowing black smoke.

"I saw police and army soldiers running all over the place, they seemed like were trying to stop a car," said AFP driver Aktar Mohammad, who was just 50 metres (yards) away from a roundabout near the foreign ministry when a suicide car bomber apparently detonated his vehicle Monday.

Taliban attack Kabul
An Afghan National Army (ANA) soldier takes position near a burning public market building where clashes between Taliban-linked militants and security forces occured in Kabul on January 18, 2010 Photo: AFP/Getty Images

"At that time I saw a huge light flash right in front of me, then a big explosion and a thick smoke billowing up," he said, adding: "I just shifted into reverse and drove out of there."

A police officer said that the suicide bomber had used an ambulance.

Less than a kilometre (half a mile) away, outside the Qari Sami Shopping Centre, formerly one of the biggest fashion outlets in Kabul, security forces took cover behind military vehicles.

They trained their automatic weapons on the building, where Taliban militants were believed to have taken up positions.

International military said they were helping Afghan army and police to secure the area, bringing in humvees and other armoured vehicles.

NATO's International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) said that Afghan security forces had killed two militants and the health ministry said 13 people had been wounded and taken to hospital.

The Taliban said it had sent 20 suicide bombers into the heart of the capital, its targets including the presidential palace and the central bank.

A man calling himself Zabihullah Mujahid, and claiming to be a spokesman for the militant Taliban organisation, added that one militant had detonated a suicide vest at the entrance to the presidential palace complex.

"It is our work, the targets are the (presidential) palace, the finance, justice and mines ministries, and the central bank," a purported Taliban spokesman said by telephone from an undisclosed location.

"Twenty of our suicide bombers have entered the area and fighting is ongoing," he said.

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