KABUL, Afghanistan — In brazen, coordinated attacks across the Afghan capital, Taliban insurgents blasted into the Justice Ministry on Wednesday morning, shooting and throwing grenades at workers inside, as a suicide bomber blew himself up near the department of prisons in another part of the city.
Another attacker, in long hair and jeans, was shot dead near the Education Ministry before he could detonate his suicide vest.
The attacks, which killed at least 20, came just before the first planned visit by Richard Holbrooke, President Obama's special envoy to Pakistan and Afghanistan, who is due this week to meet with Afghan leaders about developing a new U.S. strategy for the region.
It was the first such attack inside Kabul since July and underscored the militants' ability to still plan sophisticated operations in the capital. At least 54 people were injured, authorities said. All eight attackers were killed. At least 21 others were arrested.
While Afghanistan's Taliban movement claimed responsibility, Afghan officials suggested that terrorists from neighboring Pakistan were involved. And some observers said the attacks were eerily reminiscent of previous coordinated attacks on hotels in Kabul and Mumbai, India.
In his claim of responsibility, Taliban spokesman Zabiullah Mujaheed said his group was targeting the country's justice system because innocent people had been sentenced to death. He said 16 suicide bombers had entered Kabul and urged civilians to stay away from government offices. Taliban representatives have been known to exaggerate their claims.
Obama, who has made the war against terrorists here one of his top foreign policy priorities, has ordered a full interagency review of U.S. policy in the region before a NATO summit in April and is expected within days to announce how many extra U.S. troops will be deployed to Afghanistan. As many as 30,000 troops could be sent in the coming months, which would almost double the number of U.S. troops here.
Holbrooke was visiting Pakistan on Wednesday.
The siege at the Justice Ministry lasted more than three hours. Five men, brandishing heavy weapons, rushed toward the front gate just after 10 a.m. A police officer shot one dead in the courtyard. The four others, armed with at least one suicide vest, guns and dozens of magazines of ammunition, made their way inside the building.
Two headed for the basement. Two made their way through the hallways and up the stairs, heading toward the fourth floor, where the justice minister was holed up in his office, witnesses and authorities said.
Outside, ambulances waited for the injured and dead. Security forces sealed off the area quickly, and sirens and gunfire could be heard for blocks around. A woman wailed out front, saying "Death to the Taliban" and demanding to go inside, where her son worked.
Inside, some workers locked their doors and jumped out their windows. Others were trapped. Juma Khan, 53, a cook for the ministry, said another cook, a painter and four cleaners were killed in front of him.
Witnesses described the two gunmen, one in a traditional Afghan loose long shirt and baggy pants, the other in Western-style shirt and jeans, who systematically walked through the ministry and tried to reach the fourth floor. They said the attackers said "God is great," as they were shooting and occasionally talked on their cell phones to someone outside.
Afghan commandos were able to enter the building and shoot the four attackers — one had taken two ministry employees hostage, killing them just before he was killed. Two of the attackers' bullet-riddled bodies were carried outside and dumped unceremoniously on the ground.
On the attackers, authorities found six AK-47 assault rifles, two pistols, eight grenades, a grenade launcher, 24 magazines of ammunition, an explosive vest and six mobile phones.
At the same time, across the city at the prisons department, two suicide bombers ran toward the front door. A police officer shot one dead, but the second made it inside. The blast severely damaged two floors of the building, ripping off the front wall, authorities said.
The target of the third attacker, near the Education Ministry, was not clear. He was shot dead in a traffic circle.
The attacks reminded some of assaults on five-star hotels in Mumbai, India, in November and of an attack in January 2008 at the Serena Hotel in Kabul.
Authorities praised police for their quick response to the attacks and suggested that terrorists in Pakistan were somehow responsible. Past attacks here have been linked to elements in Pakistan, and the Mumbai attacks were attributed to a Pakistani militant group.
In the past 18 months, experts say, the insurgents have stopped fighting traditional battles against more powerful international and Afghan troops and focused instead on spectacular headline-grabbing assaults.
"Our enemies do not have the ability to fight us face to face," said Amrullah Saleh, the country's intelligence chief, at a news conference. "They always choose soft targets in big cities."