Deadly attacks in Afghanistan
Kabul - Taliban suicide bombers targeted private guesthouses in the centre of Kabul on Friday, killing 17 people including foreigners in one of the deadliest attacks on the Afghan capital in a year.
The Islamist militia, which is waging a vicious insurgency against the Western-backed Afghan government and more than 121 000 foreign troops based in the country, claimed responsibility for the attack in a telephone call to AFP.
A huge explosion and at least two smaller blasts rang out around the Safi Landmark shopping and hotel complex soon after dawn on Friday as Afghanistan commemorated Milad-Ul Nabi, the birthday of Muslim prophet Mohammed.
Afghan officials said a suicide car bomber carried out the attack and that two other would-be attackers were shot dead by police.
Sporadic gunfire rattled through the area as ambulances raced to the scene and grey smoke billowed into the air. Witnesses said people in pyjamas were led from a guesthouse in the area and taken away in ambulances.
Friday's assault was the worst attack in Kabul since thousands of US-led troops launched a major offensive to capture a key Taliban bastion in southern Afghanistan as part of a new strategy to end an eight-year war.
Shattered glass carpeted the road outside the Park Residence Hotel, a guesthouse frequented by foreigners in the centre of the city. An AFP reporter said there appeared to be a large crater in the road outside.
Police commandos were seen using ladders to scale the glass outside wall of the guesthouse.
Terrified people escape through windows
An AFP photographer saw terrified people escaping through windows and climbing down scaffolding to escape the Park Residence, and an AFP reporter saw a body in police uniform being brought out of the hotel.
"There were three bombers. One in the car which exploded, the two others at the Park Residence," said Sayed Abdul Ghafar Sayedzada, Kabul criminal police chief.
The interior ministry said the two other would-be bombers were shot dead and played down witness reports that other gunmen had entered the Safi Landmark.
At least one Indian was killed and six others wounded, said Colonel Mohammad Yaqoud Noorzai, duty doctor at the Sardar Mohammad Daud Khan military hospital.
Sayedzada said foreigners and police were among 17 people killed in what was one of the deadliest attacks in Kabul since three Taliban suicide bombers killed at least 26 people on February 11 2009.
A Taliban spokesperson claimed the attack.
"There were eight of our people. One of them detonated his car bomb in front of the Indians' hotel, two others also carried out suicide bombings. The rest of our people are still there," Zabihullah Mujahed told AFP by telephone.
Afghan flag raised in Marjah
Friday's assault came one day after the Afghan flag was raised over the town of Marjah, the focus of a massive US-led offensive designed to evict Taliban militants and reinstate government control in southern Afghanistan.
Around 15 000 US, Afghan and Nato forces are pursuing Operation Mushtarak (Together), billed as the biggest military campaign since the 2001 US-led invasion brought down the Taliban regime.
The operation is aimed at seizing control of the Marjah and Nad Ali areas of Helmand from the Taliban and drug lords, in the first big test of US President Barack Obama's surge of thousands more troops.
The Park Residence was attacked in mid-2005, when a suicide bomber struck the hotel's internet cafe, at the time one of the few in the city and as such popular with foreigners and young Afghans alike.
Regular for aid workers
Until recently the low-rise hotel was a regular for aid workers and private contractors. It is adjacent to the eight-story City Centre shopping mall and Safi Landmark Hotel.
The attackers appear to have targeted three points in a triangle between the Park Residence and the Safi Landmark on the main road, and the smaller building believed to be a guesthouse on a side street.
Afghan television showed footage of Indians receiving treatment in hospital, with one man telling Tolo TV that a bullet grazed his head.
Tolo said 12 Indian doctors were staying at one of the targeted guesthouses.
After a December 18 attack on another guesthouse in Kabul killed five UN workers, UN staff have been banned from staying anywhere but secure apartments.