Four people were killed and 20 wounded in a coordinated bomb and gun attack targeting the Afghan defence minister and several lawmakers in the country's capital Tuesday, not far from the heavily fortified Green Zone.
The wave of blasts, which Washington said bore the "hallmarks" of the Taliban, came as the Afghan army urged residents to evacuate a besieged southern city ahead of a planned offensive against the insurgents after three days of heavy fighting.
Violence has surged across the country since early May when the Taliban launched a nationwide offensive soon after the US-led foreign forces began their final withdrawal.
Security officials told AFP four people were killed and 20 others wounded in Tuesday's attack, with medical charity Emergency saying four bodies of people killed in the assault had been brought to its facility in Kabul.
The interior ministry said the attack had been successfully repelled and all the attackers had been killed by security forces. "A big number of people were rescued and the area is secured now," spokesman Mirwais Stanikzai told reporters.
The first bomb blew up in central Kabul late on Tuesday, sending a thick plume of smoke into the sky, AFP correspondents reported.
Defence Minister Bismillah Mohammadi said it was a suicide car bomb attack targeting his house. "Unfortunately, some of my guards are wounded," he added in a video message.
Less than two hours after the car bomb detonated, another loud blast followed by smaller explosions and rapid gunfire again shook Kabul, also near the high-security Green Zone that houses several embassies, including the US mission.
A security source said several attackers had entered a lawmaker's house after setting off the car bomb and were also shooting at the residence of the defence minister from there.
"Several lawmakers were meeting at the house of this MP to make a plan to counter the Taliban offensive in the north," the source told AFP.
'Hallmarks Of Taliban Attacks'
No group has yet claimed the attack, but Washington pointed the finger at the Taliban.
"We're not in a position to attribute it officially just yet but of course it does bear all the hallmarks of the spate of Taliban attacks that we have seen in recent weeks," State Department spokesman Ned Price told reporters. "We unequivocally condemn the bombing, and we continue to stand by our (Afghan) partners."
Even as the blasts and gunfire rocked the city, crowds of people marched down Kabul's streets and took to rooftops chanting "Allahu Akbar" and "Death to the Taliban" in support of Afghan forces battling the insurgents in three regional capitals.
"We are in support of Afghan forces and all those who are against the Taliban and fighting on the frontlines," said Karim, a resident of Kabul who gave only one name.
The insurgents' assaults on the cities of Lashkar Gah, Kandahar and Herat since last week came after they seized control of much of rural Afghanistan, as foreign forces began the last stage of their withdrawal from the country in May.
Fighting is raging for control of Lashkar Gah, the capital of southern Helmand province, with the United Nations saying at least 40 civilians were killed in the last 24 hours.
General Sami Sadat, commander of the 215 Maiwand Afghan Army Corps, urged residents to evacuate.
"Please leave as soon as possible so that we can start our operation," he said in a message to the city of 200,000 people.
"I know it is very difficult for you to leave your houses -- it is hard for us too -- but if you are displaced for a few days, please forgive us.
"We are fighting the Taliban wherever they are," he said.
Officials said earlier that insurgents had seized more than a dozen local radio and TV stations in Lashkar Gah, leaving only one pro-Taliban channel broadcasting Islamic programming.
The UN Assistance Mission for Afghanistan (UNAMA) tweeted its "deepening concern for Afghan civilians... as fighting worsens" and called for an "immediate end to fighting in urban areas".
'Taliban Are Everywhere'
Sefatullah, director of Sukon radio in Lashkar Gah, said: "Fighting was intense this morning".
He said US and Afghan air force planes had pounded Taliban positions, and that fighting was ongoing near the city's prison and a compound housing the headquarters of police and intelligence agencies.
"The Taliban are everywhere in the city, you can see them on motorcycles in the streets. They are arresting or shooting people who have smartphones," a resident of Lashkar Gah told AFP, on condition of anonymity.
The loss of Lashkar Gah would be a massive strategic and psychological blow for the government, which has pledged to defend cities at all costs after losing much of the rural countryside to the Taliban over the summer.
In the western city of Herat that is also under siege, officials said government forces had managed to push back the insurgents from several areas -- including near the airport, which is vital for supplies.
But on Tuesday afternoon, four rockets struck the airport. The facility was not damaged, airport chief Shaheer Salehi told AFP, but two flights were cancelled.