Kabul: At least 14 people were killed and 32 wounded in Taliban attacks in Kabul on Friday, officials said, the latest audacious assault in the Afghan capital despite a renewed push against the insurgents.
At least four of the dead and some of the wounded were Indian nationals, Abdul Ghafar Sayedzada, the head of the Kabul police’s crime investigation department, told Reuters.
The attack came as NATO-led foreign troops and Afghan forces press ahead with an offensive against the Taliban in their stronghold in southern Helmand province, a key element of Washington’s new strategy to put down a growing insurgency.
Police said a suicide bomber blew himself up near the entrance to Kabul’s biggest shopping centre soon after daybreak. At least two blasts and gunfire were reported in the area, which includes a hotel, guest house and some government buildings.
Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid claimed responsibility for the attacks on behalf of the Islamist militants.
“Our mujahidi (holy warrior) fighters managed to attack in the heart of Kabul city once again,” Mujahid told Reuters by telephone from an undisclosed location.
He said at least five Taliban fighters launched the attack. Two suicide bombers detonated explosives-packed vests near the hotel and the City Centre shopping mall. Three fighters were in the basement of the shopping centre, he said.
Witnesses later said the fighting died down and the situation appeared to be under control.
A Reuters cameraman said he saw two bodies being carried from the guest house, which is used largely by Indians.
India is one of the biggest donors in Afghanistan and is a supporter of President Hamid Karzai. The Indian Embassy in Kabul has been attacked twice since 2008.
After the first embassy bombing in July 2008, New Delhi said Pakistan’s military spy agency, the ISI, was behind most attacks on Indians in Afghanistan as a way of undermining Indian influence.
Pakistan has long regarded Afghanistan as a fall-back position in the event of war with India and fears being squeezed between India on its eastern border and a hostile Afghanistan, backed by India, on a western boundary Kabul does not recognise.
On Thursday, India and Pakistan resumed official level talks to reduce tensions, their first meeting since the Mumbai attacks in November 2008. The meeting ended with only an agreement to continue discussions.
In Kabul, an Indian who identified himself as Kashif said he survived Friday’s attack in the guest house by locking himself inside his room.
“I was inside my room when I heard a loud explosion and then I could not see if people were killed or wounded because I locked my door,” Kashif said.
US and other NATO-led foreign forces have pushed back against the Taliban after violence across Afghanistan last year hit its worst levels since the militants were ousted by US-backed Afghan forces in late 2001.
Earlier this month, the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force launched a big offensive in southern Helmand to drive the Taliban out of their last major stronghold in Afghanistan’s most violent province.
The latest operation in Helmand is an early test of US President Barack Obama’s plan to add 30,000 troops to win control of Taliban bastions and hand them over to Afghan authorities before the start of a gradual US troop withdrawal in 2011.
The new attack -- the biggest in Kabul since 18 January -- shattered the early morning calm at the start of the Afghan weekend. Thick smoke rose above the neighbourhood.
Broken glass littered the street on a wet, cold morning as Afghan security forces wearing bullet-proof vests rushed to secure the area, some taking up positions in doorways and others crouching behind concrete barriers.