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KABUL (Reuters) - Taliban gunmen launched a brazen assault on the center of Kabul on Monday, with suicide bombers blowing themselves up at several locations and militants battling security forces from inside a shopping center engulfed in flames.
The insurgents failed in an apparent attempt to seize government buildings but demonstrated their ability to cause mayhem at a time when U.S. President Barack Obama is trying to rally support for an expanded military mission to fight them.
It was the worst attack on the city in nearly a year and came as Afghan President Hamid Karzai was swearing in cabinet members inside the heavily fortified presidential palace.
Gunfire and loud explosions shook the city and a huge column of smoke poured out of the shopping center, where gunmen battled security forces for hours. Sporadic fighting continued in some areas although Karzai said the city was back under control.
"There were gunshots from security people, there was black smoke inside the building and the security guys escorted us
out," Kabul shopkeeper Mohammad Shah told Reuters.
"People carrying RPGs (rocket propelled grenades) went into the basement. The second and third floor are partly burned down."
Three members of the Afghan security forces and two civilians were killed and 71 people were wounded, the government said.
The Defense Ministry said in a statement 10 attackers had been killed, although other officials gave slightly different figures, perhaps not counting bombers who blew themselves up.
"The security situation is under control and order has once again been restored," President Hamid Karzai said in a statement after more than four hours of battles, when security forces finally recaptured the burning shopping center.
Other fighters continued battling in a cinema, with the last fighting ceasing nearly six hours after the first attack.
The Taliban said 20 of their fighters were involved in the attacks, which they said targeted the presidential palace, justice ministry, ministry of mines and a presidential administrative building, all clustered in the city center.
"As we were conducting the ceremony of swearing in, a terrorist attack in a part of Kabul close to the presidential palace is going on. This is just one of the dangers," Karzai told ministers at the swearing-in ceremony. "The danger that could harm Afghanistan is sowing national discord among Afghans."
U.S. envoy to the region Richard Holbrooke, who had left Kabul hours earlier for New Delhi, said: "The people who are doing this certainly will not survive the attack nor will they succeed, but we can expect this sort of a thing on a regular basis. That is who the Taliban are."
The attacks were a slap in the face for an initiative to lure Taliban fighters to lay down their arms, which Karzai plans to announce at an international conference in London this month.
The initiative, known as a reintegration fund, is a key part of Obama's new strategy, which will also see 30,000 extra troops sent to turn the tide against a mounting insurgency.
A Reuters correspondent at the scene of the shopping center siege saw the body of a shopkeeper carried out. People wept over the body as gunshots could be heard.
Later, a Reuters cameraman saw the bullet-riddled bodies of two of the militants on the street, outside the building where security forces had dumped them.
Shah, who had escaped the shopping center, said the gunmen had stormed in after an explosion at the gate to the nearby presidential palace.
While the shopping center siege was on, a suicide car bomber drove a vehicle painted as a military ambulance to another shopping mall nearby and blew it up, killing police and security officials. The government said it was not an official ambulance and denied it showed that fighters had infiltrated the army.
Three suicide bombers loaded with grenades blew themselves up in different places: one near the education ministry, a second in a crowded square near the central bank and a third outside the shopping center, a senior government official said.
Government buildings and diplomatic offices in Kabul are heavily fortified but a series of attacks in the past year, including one which killed five foreign U.N. staff at a guest house, underscore the city's vulnerability.
Last February, attackers stormed the justice ministry and other government buildings and Taliban fighters have mounted similar commando raids in other cities.
Additional reporting by Golnar Motevalli, Sue Pleming, Jonathon Burch and Emma Graham-Harrison; Writing by Peter Graff; Editing by Paul Tait