KABUL (AP) — 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 17 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.
India's foreign minister said up to nine Indians were killed, including government officials. An Italian diplomat and a French national were also among the dead.
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-slickened 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."
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 insurgents out. The British government said one of its soldiers was killed Friday by an explosion while on a foot patrol — the 14th international 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 attack 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 officials also condemned the attack.
"We are shocked at the inhuman attack on innocent lives," Indian External Affairs Ministry spokesman Vishnu Prakash said.
"Our ties are strong and deep (with Afghanistan) and will remain so. We are very clear that the forces of terrorism will not succeed and we will take every measure to defeat the forces of terror," he said in New Delhi.
Three police were killed in the attacks, Interior Ministry spokesman Zemeri Bashary said, adding that at least 38 people were wounded, six of them police.
Kabul Police Chief Abdul Rahman Rahman told reporters that the attacks began when a car bomb exploded outside the Arya Guesthouse where Indian doctors, who treat Afghan children in the area, were living.
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. The Italian diplomat who died had been assisting the police.
"From 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 laid in a gully near the epicenter of the blasts. Policemen ran down the streets carrying the injured.
Witnesses said one explosion created a crater about three feet (one meter) 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-slickened 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 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 with guns ready 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 Canadian Embassy and the U.S. government issued statements denouncing the attacks.
"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," The U.S. Embassy said.
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.
The Indian Embassy in Kabul has suffered two major attacks, the most recent on Oct. 8 when a suicide car bomber detonated his vehicle at an embassy security barrier, killing 17 people. In July 2008, a suicide car bomber blew up his vehicle at the gates of the embassy, killing more than 60 people.
India's growing role here is strongly opposed by Pakistan, which wants a friendly government without ties to its archrival, and by the Taliban because of Indian links to rival ethnic communities here. 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.
Associated Press writers Tini Tran, Heidi Vogt and Deb Riechmann contributed to this report.
Copyright 2010 The Associated Press