- Associated Press - Saturday, May 7, 2011

KANDAHAR, Afghanistan (AP) — The Taliban unleashed a major assault Saturday on government buildings throughout Afghanistan’s main southern city, an attack that cast doubt on how successful the U.S.-led coalition has been in its nearly yearlong military campaign to establish security and stability in the former Taliban stronghold.

The Taliban said their goal was to take control of Kandahar city, the birthplace of the Taliban and President Hamid Karzai’s home province, making it the most ambitious of a series of recent high-profile attacks on government installations. The attack came a day after the Islamic movement said Osama bin Laden’s death would only serve to boost morale, but a Taliban spokesman insisted it had been in the works for months before the al Qaeda leader was killed by American commandos on Monday.

Shooting started shortly after midday and lasted more than seven hours, while government forces were backed by military helicopters firing from overhead.

At least eight locations were attacked: the governor’s compound, the mayor’s office, the intelligence agency headquarters, three police stations and two high schools, according to government officials.

The assailants included at least five suicide attackers in bomb-rigged cars, three of whom were stopped by police before their explosives could go off, NATO forces said in a statement. In the end, none of the assaulted compounds was breached by the militants, NATO said.

About 40 to 60 insurgents were involved in the assault, according to U.S. Army Lt. Col. Webster Wright, a spokesman for NATO’s Regional Command Southeast. The rebel force was split into squad-sized units and may include more suicide bombers, Wright said.

“They’re trying to make a spectacular event,” he said.

The attackers at the governor’s compound were finally pushed back around nightfall and Gov. Tooryalai Wesa called reporters in for a press conference at his reclaimed office while fighting continued at the intelligence agency a little over a mile (a kilometer) away. Heavy gunfire finally died down across the city around 8:30 p.m., though sporadic shooting continued in the area around the intelligence agency.

At least one police officer and one civilian were killed and 20 other people wounded in the assaults, Gov. Tooryalai Wesa told reporters in a news conference at his reclaimed office, adding that the death toll was likely to rise as troops searched the area.

He said six Taliban fighters also have been killed.

The Taliban said more than 100 militants flooded into the city — including many escaped convicts who had been freed in a bold Taliban prison break last month. They were told to target any building used by the government or security forces.

“We are taking control of the entire city. We are at every corner,” Taliban spokesman Qari Yousef Ahmadi told The Associated Press in a phone call.

The Taliban usually exaggerate the scale of their attacks, and it is unlikely the movement would have the strength or the numbers to actually take over Kandahar. A NATO official, who spoke on condition of anonymity in order to let the Afghan government make official statements, said the insurgents have not controlled any part of the city during Saturday’s assaults.

But Wright, the U.S. Army spokesman, said the fighting would likely continue into the morning and that it was a show of strength by the Taliban, who recently announced their spring offensive.

“They’re attacking government institutions and trying to say that that the government cannot defend itself,” he said.

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