Taliban kill 21 at start of Afghan spring fighting

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Afghan security personal surround the area after Taliban fighters stormed a government building in Jalalabad, east of Kabul, Afghanistan, Monday, May 12, 2014. Taliban fighters stormed a government building in eastern Afghanistan killing police guards on Monday, the most serious in a wave of attacks marking the start of the insurgents’ annual spring offensive. In the Taliban heartland in the south, an attack on a police checkpoint in Helmand province killed many policemen. (AP Photo/Rahmat Gul)

Afghan security personal surround the area after Taliban fighters stormed a government building in Jalalabad, east of Kabul, Afghanistan, Monday, May 12, 2014. Taliban fighters stormed a government building in eastern Afghanistan killing police guards on Monday, the most serious in a wave of attacks marking the start of the insurgents’ annual spring offensive. In the Taliban heartland in the south, an attack on a police checkpoint in Helmand province killed many policemen. (AP Photo/Rahmat Gul)

Smoke billows after Taliban fighters stormed a government building in Jalalabad, east of Kabul, Afghanistan, Monday, May 12, 2014. Taliban fighters stormed a government building in eastern Afghanistan after killing police guards on Monday, the most serious in a wave of attacks marking the start of the insurgents’ annual spring offensive. In the Taliban heartland in the south, an attack on a police checkpoint in Helmand province killed many policemen. (AP Photo/Rahmat Gul)

Smoke billows from a building after Taliban fighters stormed a government building killing several police guards, in Jalalabad, east of Kabul, Afghanistan, May 12, 2014. A wave of attacks marking the start of the insurgents’ annual spring offensive also included an attack on a police checkpoint in the Taliban heartland in southern Helmand province that killed many policemen. The Taliban offensive comes at a sensitive time this year, against the backdrop of the country’s presidential election. Militants have also stepped up terror attacks to sow insecurity and weaken the government as international forces prepare to withdraw by the end of this year. (AP Photo/Rahmat Gul)

In this picture taken on Monday, May 11, 2014, Afghans look at the site of a deadly suicide attack Monday targeting an Afghan army vehicle, in the Maywand district of Kandahar province, Afghanistan. Taliban fighters stormed a government building in eastern Afghanistan after killing two police guards on Monday, the most serious in a wave of attacks marking the start of the insurgents’ annual spring offensive. The Taliban offensive comes at a sensitive time this year, against the backdrop of the country’s presidential election. (AP Photo/Allauddin Khan)

In this picture taken on Monday, May 11, 2014, an Afghan barber cleans up his shop that was damaged in a deadly suicide attack Monday targeting an Afghan army vehicle, in the Maywand district of Kandahar province, Afghanistan. Taliban fighters stormed a government building in eastern Afghanistan after killing two police guards on Monday, the most serious in a wave of attacks marking the start of the insurgents’ annual spring offensive. The Taliban offensive comes at a sensitive time this year, against the backdrop of the country’s presidential election. (AP Photo/Allauddin Khan)

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JALALABAD, Afghanistan (AP) — The Taliban unleashed a wave of attacks that killed 21 people around the country, making a show of strength to start the spring fighting season. The annual surge in violence poses a new test for Afghan security forces, who for the first time will face it largely on their own as international combat forces prepare to withdraw.

Spring each year brings an escalation in fighting in Afghanistan with the end of snowy winter weather, which hampers movement. The melting of the snows opens up mountain passes allowing militant forces to move in from refuges in neighboring Pakistan.

This year’s offensive by the Taliban will be an important gauge of how well Afghan government forces face insurgent attacks once foreign combat forces leave at the end of the year. Since last spring, Afghan troops and police have taken up full security duties in the country, with U.S. and NATO troops training and mentoring in the background, rarely intervening directly with air support.

Around 30,000 U.S. troops remain on the ground in Afghanistan, the lowest number since the 2001 invasion.

The Taliban warned last week that they’d launch their annual spring offensive on Monday, and it was no bluff — with a flurry of rocket blasts and attacks on police around the country and the storming of a government building in an eastern city.

The violence began with a pre-dawn rocket attack on the main NATO base at Bagram, just north of the Afghan capital, as well as another on Kabul’s international airport soon after — both largely symbolic, doing little damage.

But around 9 a.m., three Taliban attackers attacked a provincial Justice Ministry building in Jalalabad, in eastern Afghanistan. They shot and killed two police guards and rushed into the building, just as employees were arriving for work, said provincial government spokesman Ahmad Zia Abdulzai.

Security forces rushed to the scene, including three armored vehicles that took up positions around the new two-story concrete building. Gunners on the vehicles blasted the building with heavy machine guns from several directions during a 4 ½-hour gunbattle with the militants inside.

By the end, the building was devastated, with burned-out offices and smashed furniture, an Associated Press photographer who entered the building said.

Five civilians were killed, including three elderly employees of the office, and seven other civilians wounded in the battle. Once they retook the building, police found two dead attackers along with the remains of a third who police say died when he detonated an explosive vest.

Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid claimed responsibility for the Jalalabad attack in an email to reporters. He said the attack was retaliation for what he called harsh rulings by the justice ministry against the Taliban.

With foreign forces in the background, Afghan forces have faced the brunt of militant attacks the past year. In 2013, insurgents inflicted almost

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