Militants detonated a bomb outside the Afghan parliament on Monday and attempted to storm the building before being struck down by security forces in a gun battle that left two civilians dead and at least 40 people wounded.
The attack came as lawmakers in the complex were meeting to vote on the appointment of a new defense minister. Officials evacuated the building as television images showed the parliamentary chamber filling with smoke and dust. One lawmaker was among the injured, according to local news reports.
It was the latest high-profile attack for which Taliban insurgents claimed responsibility. They have also captured two districts in northern Afghanistan in recent days, part of a widening offensive in a region long regarded as safely in government hands.
Late Sunday, Taliban spokesman Zabiullah Mujahid said the militant group had seized Chahar Dara district in the northern province of Kunduz after a day of fighting that reportedly left 12 Afghan soldiers dead and 16 wounded. On Monday, the head of Dasht-e Archi district, also in Kunduz, said it too had fallen to the insurgents, although officials in Kabul, the Afghan capital, did not immediately comment on the reports.
Videos aired on local television appeared to show Afghan security forces in Chahar Dara complaining that they were overmatched by the Taliban militants, who are said to be backed by a contingent of fighters from the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, a Central Asian militant group that has long been active in Pakistan.
“No reinforcements came. We had to flee,” one Afghan soldier said in the video. “This is [President] Ashraf Ghani; this is the government?” The authenticity of the video could not be independently confirmed.
Afghan officials praised the security forces’ response to Monday’s attack on the parliament building, which was the target of a Taliban assault in 2012. Residents nearby said they heard at least five large explosions, blasts from 20 grenades and gunfire.
Sediq Sediqqi, spokesman for the Interior Ministry, said gunmen attempting to enter the compound after a car bombing were pushed back by security forces and forced to take refuge in a nearby building that was under construction. Soldiers and police surrounded the structure and engaged in a firefight with the assailants, eventually killing all seven, officials said.
Officials said the attack was over about two hours after it began, and the area was cordoned off by Afghan forces.
A woman and a child were killed, the United Nations mission in Afghanistan said. A lawmaker from Kunduz, Fatema Aziz, suffered injuries and told the Tolo news network that the assault must have been timed to coincide with the vote on the defense minister.
“Targeting the parliament is an attack on the [Afghan] people and our heroes in the security forces are committed to kill terrorists and secure the nation,” Abdullah Abdullah, chief executive in Afghanistan’s unity government, said in a statement. “I congratulate the Afghan security forces for their bravery and professionalism shown today to kill all insurgents within an hour.”
Elsewhere in Afghanistan, however, the U.S.-trained security forces have come under sustained attacks by insurgents and are suffering casualties at a record-high rate, according to news reports and analysts. Although U.S. and Afghan officials have refused to publicly disclose the casualty figures, they acknowledge that fighting has increased this year since U.S.-led international forces scaled back their mission in December to focus on training and advising Afghan troops.
“The Afghan National Security Forces have been undeniably stretched as they take on full security responsibilities,” Nicholas Haysom, the ranking U.N. official in Afghanistan, told the U.N. Security Council on Monday. “We have seen an intensification of conflict across the country, including in areas previously considered to be safe.”
Taliban militants have been targeting Kunduz since they launched their annual spring offensive in late April. The seizure of Chahar Dara was particularly alarming to government officials because the district lies just a few miles from the provincial capital, also called Kunduz, which is Afghanistan’s fifth-largest city with more than 300,000 residents.
“If you can get to Chahar Dara, you are basically at the doorstep of Kunduz city,” Mahboubullah Mahboub, a member of the provincial council, said in a phone interview.
In some areas, the southwestern district and provincial capital are only 2 1/2 miles apart.
The fighting in Kunduz comes months after Ghani and Abdullah said the government was closer to peace than it had been in more than three decades of ongoing conflict. Ghani’s government has started tentative efforts to engage Taliban leaders in peace talks abroad, but there has been little progress as the violence increases.
The Taliban offensive has worsened the economic situation in Kunduz, one of the major transit hubs between Afghanistan and the Central Asian nations of Tajikistan and Uzbekistan. According to the National Disaster Management Authority, more than 18,500 families have been displaced.
“Those who could return, even briefly, came back to see their houses destroyed in the fighting,” said Mahboubullah Saeedi, a leader in the province’s Aliabad district.
Government security reports estimate that more than 3,200 Taliban and allied fighters are involved in the fight for Kunduz, according to an official who requested anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the media.
Special correspondent Latifi reported from Kabul and Times staff writer Bengali from Mumbai, India.