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Taliban mount bold assaults on 4 Afghan cities; U.S. Embassy takes fire in 17-hour Kabul attack

The Afghan capital awoke today to a second day of explosions and heavy gunfire as Afghan-led forces worked to defeat insurgents holed up in one building in the heart of the city and another near parliament.

As darkness turned to dawn, Afghan-led forces fired one rocket-propelled grenade after another into a building in the center of the city where insurgents began their attack on Sunday in the capital and three eastern cities. The Taliban's boldest and most complex assault in years lasted more than 17 hours.

Fighting had subsided by 7 a.m., but sporadic gunfire could still be heard near the parliament building.

The U.S., German and British embassies and some coalition and Afghan government buildings took direct and indirect fire, according to U.S. Army Lt. Col. Jimmie Cummings, a spokesman for the U.S.-led coalition.

The Taliban began their near-simultaneous assaults on embassies, government buildings and NATO bases at 1:30 p.m. Sunday, saying that it was their response to NATO officials' recent claims that the insurgency was weak.

The first explosions Sunday rocked the diplomatic quarter of Kabul. Soon gunshots and rocket-propelled grenade fire were ringing out across the city. Smoke rose over the skyline as sirens wailed. A loudspeaker at the U.S. Embassy could be heard barking: "Duck and cover. Move away from the windows."

Authorities said one police officer and at least 17 militants were killed in the multipronged attacks, which showed that the Taliban and their allies are far from beaten and underscored the security challenge facing government forces as U.S. and NATO forces draw down. The majority of international combat troops are scheduled to leave by the end of 2014.

Local residents near the parliament building said rocket-propelled grenades and gunfire rocked their neighborhood through the night and into the morning.

Afghan Interior Ministry spokesman Sediq Sediqi said militants took up position in a building under construction near parliament. Some lawmakers grabbed weapons and started fighting when militants fired on the parliament building on Sunday.

Local residents reported gunfire and explosions this morning, but Sediqi said the militants' standoff with Afghan security forces had ended.

Reporters for the Associated Press witnessed the assault this morning on another building under construction near the presidential palace, western embassies and Afghan ministries.

Shortly before 3 a.m., coalition helicopters began flying over the building. At 4:23 a.m., a cleric began calling Muslim worshippers to prayer over a loudspeaker in the area. During the next 15 minutes, troops launched five rocket-propelled grenades into the building. More followed.

The loud booms from the blasts momentarily silenced chirping birds. Red and white flashes could be seen inside the various floors of the multistory building. By about 6:30 a.m., the blasts and shooting had stopped.

An intelligence official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said an operation to clear the building was nearly completed. The official said that one insurgent was still defending the building but that at least four other militants had been killed.

It was the most widespread attack in the Afghan capital since an assault on the U.S. Embassy and NATO headquarters last September blamed on the Haqqani network, a Pakistan-based insurgent group allied with the Taliban.

As in the earlier attack, armed insurgents took over half-built buildings Sunday and used them to fire down on nearby embassies and bases. In the streets of Kabul's Wazir Akbar Khan section, where a NATO base and a number of embassies, including the U.S. Embassy, are located, residents scrambled for cover as gunfire rained down from all directions.

Militants also attacked a NATO site on the outskirts of Kabul, where a joint Greek-Turkish base came under heavy fire and forces responded with heavy-caliber machine guns, according to an AP reporter at the scene. A police officer said a suicide bomber inside a building near the base was shooting toward the Kabul Military Training Center.

The eastern cities of Jalalabad, Gardez and Pul-e-Alam also came under attack, with suicide bombers trying to storm a NATO base, an airport and police installations.

Taliban spokesman Zabiullah Mujahid said dozens of suicide attackers and gunmen were involved in attacks that had been planned for two months to show the insurgency's power after NATO commanders called the Taliban weak and said there was no indication they were planning a spring offensive.

"We are strong and we can attack anywhere we want," Mujahid said, calling the attacks an opening salvo ahead of the yearly spring offensive, when warmer weather typically brings increased attacks.

U.S. Ambassador Ryan C. Crocker said Sunday's attacks showed why the United States should not try to hasten the exit from Afghanistan.

"To get out before the Afghans have a full grip on security, which is a couple years out, would be to invite the Taliban, Haqqani and al-Qaida back in and set the stage for another 9/1 1," Crocker said.