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Taliban attackers stormed Justice Ministry buildings in Kabul Wednesday morning, highlighting the fragile security situation in Afghanistan and showing that militants can strike inside the capital as well as in the countryside.

The attackers, who fired automatic rifles and were reportedly wearing suicide bomb vests, killed at least 20 people and wounded 54 others, said Afghan security officials who described the attacks as "coordinated."

The incidents come as President Barack Obama is set to announce an expected increase in the number of U.S. troops in Afghanistan, and a day before a visit by Richard Holbrooke, Obama’s special envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Obama plans to nearly double the U.S. force in Afghanistan, with plans to deploy up to 30,000 troops this year.

At least eight attackers were killed, the officials said, though there were conflicting reports about whether any of the gunmen remained at large or escaped security forces.

The attacks struck the ministry’s headquarters building and a corrections department facility.

A Taliban spokesman phoned news agencies and claimed that the group had sent 16 suicide attackers into Kabul to conduct the operations. The spokesman claimed there were still several moving about the city.

"We have warned the Afghan government to stop torturing our prisoners. Today we attacked Justice Ministry compounds," the spokesman was quoted as saying by The Associated Press.

An Afghan intelligence official also told reporters that the attackers were communicating with their "handler" in Pakistan.

The Taliban, al-Qaida and other militant groups have formed a new base of operations in the Pakistani tribal areas, officials have said.

The arrival of additional U.S. troops would come after two years of dramatically escalating violence, with 2008 by far the deadliest year of the war for U.S. and international troops.

A recent independent assessment of the war concluded that the Taliban now has a permanent presence in three-quarters of the country, up from just over half in 2007.

The first major group of reinforcements — about 3,500 troops from the 3rd Brigade, 10th Mountain Division — began arriving this month. Most of the brigade will take positions in Wardak and Logar provinces southwest of Kabul, roughly tripling U.S. force levels there compared to 2008 numbers.

With U.S. troops focused on the border in an effort to cut off insurgents from their bases in Pakistan, violence has risen in several provinces surrounding Kabul, where U.S. commanders have, in some cases, been able to field little more than a token force. In Logar, for example, a single platoon of fewer than 50 U.S. troops patrolled an area of roughly 700 square miles this summer, and officers described an active and growing Taliban presence.

Stripes reporter Michael Gisick contributed to this report.


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