Insurgents struck in the heart of the Afghan capital Friday with suicide attackers and a car bomb, targeting hotels used by foreigners and killing at least 16 people and wounding dozens, police said.
The Taliban claimed responsibility for the attacks, which Afghan President Hamid Karzai said were aimed at Indians working in Kabul.
The Taliban has long opposed India’s involvement in the country and its ties to the Northern Alliance that helped the U.S. oust the Taliban regime in 2001 and formed the backbone of Karzai’s government.
Six Indians were killed in the attacks, a spokesman for the country’s foreign ministry said, revising the number from the ministry’s original estimate of up to nine Indians dead. An Italian diplomat and a French filmmaker were also among the dead. Three Afghan police were killed, and six more officers were among the 36 people wounded, Afghan government officials said.
The four-hour assault began about 6:30 a.m. with a car bombing that leveled a residential hotel used by Indian doctors. A series of explosions and gunbattles left blood and debris in the rain-slicked streets and underscored the militants’ ability to strike in the heavily defended capital even as NATO marshals its forces against them in the volatile south.
Dr. Subodh Sanjivpaul of India said he was holed up in his bathroom for three hours inside one of the small hotels where he lived with other Indians.
“Today’s suicide attack took place in our residential complex,” Sanjivpaul said at a military hospital where his wounded foot was bandaged. “When I was coming out, I found two or three dead bodies. When firing was going on, the first car bomb exploded and the full roof came on my head.”
Attack follows U.S. offensive
The Kabul attacks came two weeks into a major offensive against the southern Taliban stronghold of Marjah, where thousands of U.S., Afghan and NATO soldiers are battling to drive out insurgents. The British government said one of its soldiers was killed Friday by an explosion while on a foot patrol — the 14th NATO service member to die in the operation.
In recent weeks, more than two dozen senior and midlevel Taliban figures have been detained in Pakistan, suggesting the attacks in the capital could be a way for the militants to show the insurgency remains potent.
In a statement, Karzai condemned Friday’s assault as a “terrorist attack against Indian citizens” who were helping the Afghan people. He said it would not affect relations between India and Afghanistan.
Indian Foreign Minister S.M. Krishna called the attacks “barbaric” and a matter of “deep concern.”
“These are the handiwork of those who are desperate to undermine the friendship between India and Afghanistan,” he said in a statement.
Initially, it was believed that nine Indians had been killed but Vishhnu Prakash, spokesman for India’s Foreign Ministry, gave a lower figure of six dead several hours later.
The Indian Embassy in Kabul has been the target of two major attacks, one in July 2008 that killed more than 60 and another last October that killed 17.
India accused archrival Pakistan’s main spy agency of involvement in the July 2008 attack.
Friday’s attack comes a day after India and Pakistan held their first official talks since India suspended peace negotiations following the November 2008 Mumbai attacks that it blamed on Pakistan-based militants. India insisted Thursday that Pakistan still needed to take more aggressive efforts to rein in anti-Indian insurgents in Pakistan.
Interior Ministry spokesman Zemeri Bashary said three attackers were involved in Friday’s assault, although the Taliban said there were five suicide bombers.
In a call to The Associated Press about 2 1/2 hours after the initial blast, Taliban spokesman Zabiullah Mujahid said the attackers were “targeting two places used by foreigners.” He did not specifically mention India.
Kabul Police Chief Abdul Rahman Rahman told reporters the attacks started with a car bomb that exploded outside the Arya Guesthouse where Indian doctors stay. Some work at the Indira Gandhi Child Health Institute in the city.
The blast leveled the building, also known as the Hamid Guesthouse. After the car bombing, a suicide attacker detonated his vest of explosives outside the demolished building.
Two other attackers then entered a second hotel known as Park Residence. Police surrounded the building. One of them holed himself up in a room and then blew himself up, killing three police officers and wounding six others. The other attacker was shot dead by police.
An Italian diplomat who worked as a counselor to the Italian premier’s office was among those killed, Italy’s foreign minister said. The Frenchman killed was identified as filmmaker Severin Blanchet, who had trained young Afghans on documentary filmmaking since 2006, the French Foreign Ministry said. In addition to three Afghan police, at least four Afghan civilians also died, the Health Ministry said. Several bodies remained unidentified.
Bodies and chaos
The Italian who died had been assisting the police during the assault, said Rahman.
“From the beginning of the operation, he was in contact with our units and gave us tips and even information regarding the terrorists’ position, which was quite helpful for us,” Rahman said, adding that the tips helped police rescue four other Italians from the scene.
“He was killed by the terrorists who realized that he was passing information to police forces,” Rahman said. “He was in a room right behind the attackers and he could see where they were and what they are doing.”
The scene was chaotic. A body of a man wearing a red shirt was lying near a burned-out vehicle in the rubble. The remains of another man lay in a gully near the epicenter of the blasts. Policemen ran down the streets carrying the injured.
Witnesses said one explosion created a deep crater about three meters (10 feet) wide in front of the Arya Guesthouse; the windows of the nearby luxury Safi Landmark Hotel were blown out.
“I saw foreigners were crying and shouting,” said Najibullah, a 25-year-old worker at the high-rise Safi hotel who ran out into the rain-slicked street in just his underwear when he heard the first explosion.
Najibullah, whose face and hands were covered in blood, said he saw two suicide bombers at the site. “It was a very bad situation inside,” he said. “God helped me, otherwise I would be dead. I saw one suicide bomber blowing himself up.”
The streets, littered with glass and debris, were mostly empty when the attackers struck because it was the first day of the Afghan weekend and a major Muslim holiday to mark the Prophet Muhammad’s birthday. Afghan police, armed with Kalashnikov rifles, crouched behind traffic barriers as a light rain fell and shots sounded from multiple sides.
Police escorted a middle-aged woman in pink pajamas out of the area. She wore a brown sweater, but no shoes, and her socks sopped up water as she walked down the street in a daze. “I haven’t seen ... where are my ...?” she said, speaking only in sentence fragments.
Jack Barton, an Australian aid worker, said he was awakened by a large blast that blew in the windows of the hotel where he was staying and filled the room with dust.
“There was very intense street fighting outside the guesthouse compound. It happened very close by. After an hour, it slowly drifted away,” he said.
The United Nations, Canadian Embassy and the U.S. government denounced the attacks.
First attack since Jan. 18
“The United States remains firmly committed to working side-by-side with the Afghan government and people, as well as our international partners, to deliver security and a better future to Afghanistan,” a U.S. Embassy statement said.
U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon strongly condemned the attacks saying “this deliberate targeting of civilians demonstrates once again a senseless disregard for human life on the part of the perpetrators,” U.N. spokesman Martin Nesirky said at U.N. headquarters in New York.
It was the first attack in the Afghan capital since Jan. 18, when teams of suicide bombers and gunmen targeted government buildings, leaving 12 dead, including seven attackers. On Dec. 15, a suicide car bomber hit near a hotel frequented by foreigners, killing eight people.
That followed an October attack on a small residential hotel that housed a number of U.N. election workers. Gunmen with suicide vests stormed the building, killing five U.N. staff.
India is among the largest economic donors to Afghanistan apart from countries that have sent troops to the NATO-led mission. India is seeking regional allies and access to oil- and gas-rich central Asia.
India’s growing role here is strongly opposed by Pakistan, which wants a friendly government without ties to its archrival, and by the Taliban. Many of the Islamic extremist groups in the region have been fighting the Indians for years in Indian-controlled parts of Kashmir.
Also Friday, German lawmakers approved a plan to send up to 850 extra troops to Afghanistan, increasing the maximum number of German troops serving there to 5,350 from 4,500 — a boost to NATO’s multinational force, a week after the Dutch government collapsed over a plan to keep the Netherlands’ 2,000-strong contingent from going home this year.