KABUL - At least 30 people were killed and hundreds wounded when a Taliban truck bomb tore through central Kabul Tuesday, triggering a fierce firefight, a week after the insurgents launched their annual spring offensive.
The Taliban claimed responsibility for the attack in a densely crowded neighbourhood, which sent clouds of acrid smoke billowing into the sky and rattled windows several kilometres away.
The brazen assault near the defence ministry marks the first major Taliban attack in the Afghan capital since the insurgents announced the start of this year's fighting season.
"One of the suicide attackers blew up an explosives-laden truck in a public parking lot next to a government building," Kabul police chief Abdul Rahman Rahimi told reporters.
"The second attacker engaged security forces in a gunbattle before being gunned down." Interior ministry spokesman Sediq Sediqqi said 30 people, including women and children, were killed in the attack and warned that the toll could rise further.
He added that more than 320 were wounded, with many of them battling for their lives in hospital.
The pitched firefight appeared to die down several hours after the powerful explosion, but some security officials expressed concern that other bombers may still be on the loose.
"I saw wounded people lying on the road and screaming helplessly," said Sadiqullah, who runs a tea stall near the building which was attacked.
"It was devastating. We are fed up with such attacks. How long must ordinary civilians suffer like this?" The interior ministry said hundreds of kilograms of explosives were used in the bombing, the deadliest so far this year in the Afghan capital.
Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid claimed their fighters had managed to enter the offices of the National Directorate of Security, the main spy agency.
Sediqqi conceded that one of the attackers managed to breach the compound, a government office responsible for providing security to government VIPs, but said he was gunned down after a firefight.
"This attack shows the devastation caused by the use of explosive devices in urban areas and once more demonstrates complete disregard for the lives of Afghan civilians," the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan said.
"The use of explosives in populated areas, in circumstances almost certain to cause immense suffering to civilians, may amount to war crimes." The Taliban on Tuesday last week announced the start of their spring offensive even as the government tries to bring them back to the negotiating table to end the drawn-out conflict.
The insurgents warned they would "employ large-scale attacks on enemy positions across the country" during the offensive dubbed Operation Omari in honour of the movement's late founder Mullah Omar, whose death was announced last year.
The Taliban began the fighting season last week by targeting the northern city of Kunduz, which they briefly captured last year in a stunning setback for Afghan forces.
But officials said Afghan security forces drove Taliban fighters back from the city on Friday.
The annual spring offensive normally marks the start of the "fighting season", though this past winter the lull was shorter and rebels continued to battle government forces, albeit with less intensity.
The Taliban's resurgence has raised serious questions about Afghan forces' capacity to hold their own. NATO estimates that a staggering 5,500 troops were killed last year.
Peace talks which began last summer were abruptly halted after it was revealed that Mullah Omar had been dead for two years, a disclosure which sparked infighting in the insurgents' ranks.
A four-country group comprising Afghanistan, the United States, China and Pakistan has been holding meetings since January aimed at jump-starting negotiations, though their efforts have so far been in vain.