KABUL — A suicide car bomber followed by insurgents armed with rocket-propelled grenades launched an audacious attack on the Afghan parliament Monday as it was meeting to endorse a new defense minister, forcing frightened lawmakers to flee the building. The Taliban quickly claimed responsibility.
The brazen strike coincided with Taliban insurgents also capturing two districts in the north of the embattled country, witnesses said — a rare development since militants have their strongholds in the south and east of the country.
The attack on the highly secure large government compound came as parliament was in session to endorse new Defense Minister Masoom Stanekzai, a post that has been vacant for nine months. Stanekzai, who has been a target of the Taliban in the past, was in the compound when the attack started, witnesses said.
The Interior Ministry said the daylight attack started with a suicide car bomber striking the entrance to the parliament building. Gunmen then attempted to storm the compound but were pushed back by security forces, eventually taking refuge in a nearby building under construction from which they continued to battle police.
The ministry said all seven attackers involved in the complex strike were killed. There were no casualties among the lawmakers or the security forces, it said.
At least 30 people, both inside the parliament and in vehicles driving past, were wounded, some by flying glass, according to nearby hospitals.
Windows near the parliament were shattered by the powerful explosion, residents from the area said by phone.
Smoke could be seen rising from part of the parliament building. Just down the street, hundreds of children were evacuated from a school, news reports said.
The Taliban quickly asserted responsibility on its Web site.
Television was broadcasting live from the parliament building, located on the west side of Kabul, when the attack happened.
The parliament’s chief, speaking on live television as dust poured down from the building’s ceiling, tried to calm down the members of parliament, saying it was an electrical power problem.
But the terrified lawmakers soon lost faith and started to flee when several consecutive blasts and gunfire ensued.
The first blast paved the way for three attackers to enter the parliament building, but they were gunned down by security forces and guards of some of the lawmakers.
“God knows how many members of parliament would have been killed and what would have happened to Stanekzai . . . if these three could have made their way in,” said parliamentary member Aref Rahmani, who was inside the building.
“The blast was very powerful and the gunbattle very intense,” said lawmaker Hamidullah Tokhi.
The U. S. Embassy in Kabul condemned the attack, as did the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan, or UNAMA.
“The attack on parliament shows blatant disrespect for democracy and the rule of law,” the embassy said. “At this time, we offer our sympathies to the people of Afghanistan and the members of parliament, who suffered as a result of this attack.”
UNAMA called the attack “a clear and deliberate affront to democracy in Afghanistan — an attack against the Afghan peoples’ democratically elected representatives.”
The statement said UNAMA was also “deeply concerned by reports of civilian casualties from the attack and re-iterates that international humanitarian law, which binds all parties to the conflict in Afghanistan, including the Taliban, prohibits attacks against civilians at any time and in any place.”
Militant attacks in Kabul have risen in the past two months after a brief lull at the beginning of this year.
A U.S.-led war ousted the hardline Islamist Taliban regime in 2001, but insurgent attacks have continued since the Taliban was forced from power. Afghan forces have struggled to fight off Taliban advances since the U.S. and NATO combat forces officially ended their mission at the end of 2014.
Taliban insurgents have attacked government installations in Kabul in the past, but Monday’s attack appeared to be the first on the parliament building.
The Taliban has also been advancing across the country’s north, capturing two districts in the Kunduz province.
Insurgents attacked the district of Dashti Archi from four sides, setting off heavy fighting before seizing full control of the area Monday, the Associated Press reported. Sunday, they took control of the Chardara district in Kunduz.
Mohammad Yusuf Ayubi, head of the provincial council there, said some 150,000 residents were unable to leave the area, the news agency reported. He said Afghan forces suffered some casualties, but he did not provide a full count.
On Sunday, the insurgents seized control of the Chardara district, just past the southern outskirts of Kunduz city, forcing Afghan security forces and local police to flee. The Taliban also bombed a strategic bridge across the river, preventing Afghan forces from resupplying their comrades. As many as 75 Afghan soldiers and police remain trapped inside a base in the district, surrounded by the Taliban, provincial officials said.
“They don’t have water. They don’t have food,” said Mohammad Omer Safi, the provincial governor. “They say we have enough ammunition and we can fight. They are crying and asking us to send us water and food. Our helicopter dropped water and food, but it was driven to the Taliban side because of the wind.”
If authorities don’t get help to them soon, “we’ll lose them. They will all be killed,” Safi added.
Three Afghan National Army soldiers have already been killed and six wounded in the Chardara fighting, said Sarwar Hussaini, a Kunduz police spokesman. The dead included two Afghan Special Forces soldiers, part of a contingent of reinforcements sent to retake Chardara district. Hussaini added that 17 Taliban insurgents were killed, and 21 were wounded.
On Sunday night, the Taliban ran over Dashti Archi, east of Kunduz city, assaulting it from four sides, triggering heavy clashes before taking control of the area Monday morning, said provincial officials and tribal elders. Over the weekend, wounded civilians were arriving at the Doctors Without Borders hospital, including women and children, said hospital workers.
By Monday afternoon, eight Afghan military attack helicopters were stationed at the airport, underscoring the seriousness of the situation. In at least one helicopter were American advisers and trainers. The government in Kabul had dispatched senior generals to the area to organize an offensive to retake the districts.
“We are trying to recapture Chardara and our troops have descended into Dashti Archi,” said Maj. Gen. Zamaray Paikan, the commander of the Afghan Civil Order Police. “We have established a security belt around Kunduz city. . . . Things are going well.”
Deane reported from Rome. Sudarsan Raghavan in Kunduz also contributed to this story.