KABUL - A Taleban suicide bomber and six gunmen attacked the Afghan Parliament as lawmakers met to consider a new defence minister, and another district in the volatile north fell to the militants as they intensified a summer offensive.
The brazen assault yesterday on the symbolic centre of power, along with territorial gains elsewhere, highlight how Nato-trained Afghan security forces are struggling to cope with worsening militant violence.
Fighting has spiralled since the departure of most foreign forces from Afghanistan at the end of last year. The insurgents are pushing to take territory more than 13 years after US-led military intervention toppled them from power.
Yesterday's attack began as lawmakers met new Acting Defence Minister Masoom Stanekzai. A top official in the government body overseeing the country's peace process, he is the third candidate so far for the post, and his appointment must be confirmed by Parliament.
A Taleban fighter detonated a car loaded with explosives outside Parliament gates, said Mr Ebadullah Karimi, spokesman for Kabul police, raising questions about how the driver got through several security checkpoints.
"First, a car bomb detonated on the main road near the Parliament building, then a group of attackers entered a building in front of Parliament," he said.
Police said two civilians, a woman and a child, were killed in the attack, which left a thick plume of smoke hanging over the Parliament complex and tore a huge crater in an adjoining street.
Deputy Interior Ministry spokesman Najib Danish said there were seven attackers and the Health Ministry reported 31 people, including five women and a child, wounded.
Dramatic television footage of the moment the first explosion struck showed pandemonium and screams inside Parliament, with Speaker Abdul Rauf Ibrahimi sitting in his chair, calmly telling lawmakers "it's an electrical issue".
Kabul police chief Abdul Rahman Rahimi said all lawmakers were safe.
All seven attackers, including the suicide car bomber, were dead. Security forces killed the six after a gun battle lasting nearly two hours.
Mr Rahimi said the assailants were armed with assault rifles and rocket-propelled grenades. Police will investigate how the attackers got so close to Parliament.
Taleban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid claimed responsibility. "We have launched an attack on Parliament as there was an important gathering to introduce the country's defence minister," he said by phone, referring to Mr Stanekzai.
The attack fits a pattern of high-profile assaults on heavily fortified buildings in the capital. Last month, car bombs targeted the Ministry of Justice, and attackers stormed two guesthouses used by foreigners.
A district in the northern province of Kunduz fell to the Taleban yesterday, the second such loss in two days. Officials said the militants were able to take over when urgently needed reinforcements failed to arrive.
The Taleban captured Dasht-e-Archi district a day after hundreds of militants fought their way to the centre of the adjacent district of Chardara.
REUTERS, AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE