KABUL, (Reuters) – Taliban fighters opened fire, hurled grenades and staged suicide bombings in central Kabul on Friday, killing 16 people in a show of defiance against the Western-backed government and a NATO offensive to wipe them out.
Among the dead were eight Afghans, including three police officers, four Indian nationals and an Italian, the Afghan Interior Ministry said. The French Foreign Ministry said one French mational had been killed in the assault.
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.
Some 38 people were wounded in the two-hour assault which started after at least one suicide bomber blew himself up in front of a guest house frequented by Indians.
“I heard a big blast,” witness Quaree Sameh told Reuters. “The glass shattered. The attackers were throwing grenades and shooting.”
The blast triggered car alarms and sent plumes of thick smoke into the damp and cold morning air at the start of the Afghan weekend.
“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,” said an Indian who gave his name as Kashif, who was staying in the guest house.
Afghan security forces wearing bullet-proof vests rushed to secure the area, which is home to Kabul’s biggest shopping centre, exchanging fire with the militants. Others carried out wounded Indians on their backs or stretchers.
Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid claimed responsibility for the attacks on behalf of the Islamist militants. “Our mujahideen (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.
The Taliban frequently attack the capital, targeting foreigners and public areas. On Jan. 18, Taliban fighters hit multiple locations in the city including another shopping mall, killing five people and wounding 38.
Afghan President Hamid Karzai condemned the attacks, which fell on a holiday.
“Those who are involved and carried out inhumane and un-Islamic attacks on a holy day that is the birthday of the Prophet Mohammad are certainly enemies of Islam and Afghanistan,” Karzai said.
The United States and France also condemned the attack. “The terrorists have once again just proved how little they value human life, by brutally targeting civilians on the Mawlid holiday,” French Foreign Ministr Bernard Kouchner said.
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 to undermine Indian influence.
Pakistan 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 keep talking.
U.S. 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 U.S.-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 U.S. 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 U.S. troop withdrawal in 2011.