The Taleban said the main targets were the British and German embassies and the headquarters of the Nato-led force.
Several Afghan members of parliament joined security forces repelling attackers from a roof near the parliament.
The assault, one of the most serious on the capital since US-backed Afghan forces removed the Taleban from power in 2001, highlighted the ability of militants to strike the heavily guarded diplomatic zone even after more than ten years of war.
“These attacks are the beginning of the spring offensive and we had planned them for months,” Taleban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid said.
He said the onslaught was revenge for a series of incidents involving American troops in Afghanistan – including the burning of Korans at a Nato base and the massacre of 17 civilians by a US soldier – and vowed that there would be more such attacks. Heavy fighting erupted again more than five hours after the Taleban first struck, as dusk was falling over the capital and as mosques were issuing calls to prayer.
Large explosions shook the diplomatic sector of Kabul. Billows of black smoke rose from embassies while rocket- propelled grenades whizzed overhead. Heavy gunfire could be heard from many directions as Afghan security forces tried to repel Taleban fighters.
Taleban fighters, some of them dressed in women’s head-to-toe-covering burqas, also launched simultaneous assaults in three other provinces of Afghanistan. In the eastern city of Jalalabad, they attacked a foreign force base near a school and a blast went off near the airport.
The Ministry of Interior said 19 insurgents, including suicide bombers, died in the encounters across the country and two were captured. Fourteen police officers and nine civilians were wounded.
The attacks in Kabul come a month before a Nato summit supposed to put finishing touches on plans for transition to Afghan security control, and days before a meeting of defence and foreign ministers in Brussels to prepare for the Chicago summit.
The assaults appeared to repeat the tactics of an attack last September when insurgents entered building sites to use them as positions for rocket and gun attacks.
Witnesses said insurgents entered a multi-storey construction site overlooking the diplomatic triangle and behind a supermarket. There they unleashed rocket-propelled grenades and gunfire, protected from the view of security forces by green protective netting wrapped around the skeleton of the building.
US ambassador Ryan Crocker said it was unlikely the Afghan Taleban had the capacity to launch Sunday’s attacks on its own, and speculated that the Haqqani Network – whose fighters are based in the Afghanistan-Pakistan border area – were involved.
“The Taleban are really good at issuing statements. Less good at actually fighting,” he said. “My guess is this is a set of Haqqani Network operations out of north Waziristan and the Pakistani tribal areas. Frankly, I don’t think the Taleban is good enough.”
The Taleban said in a statement that “tens of fighters”, armed with heavy and light weapons, and some wearing suicide-bomb vests, carried out the multi-pronged assault.