Suicide bomb attack in Kabul kills at least 16, raises regional tensions

Suicide bombers struck hotels in the heart of Kabul Friday. The blasts and ensuing gunbattles killed at least 17 people and injured dozens, many of them Indian citizens.
Map shows location of attack by suicide bombers in Kabul, Afghanistn
By Karin Brulliard
Saturday, February 27, 2010

KABUL -- A crew of suicide bombers armed with grenades and Kalashnikov rifles attacked two guesthouses frequented by foreigners here early Friday, setting off a gun battle with Afghan police and killing at least 16 people.

The Taliban asserted responsibility for the dramatic raid in central Kabul, which began around daybreak and wounded at least 38 people. The assault was the latest in a string of attacks to rock the Afghan capital, whose residents generally feel a world away from the raging rural insurgency that thousands of U.S.-led troops are seeking to contain in a new push in southern Afghanistan.

The attack further eroded the sense of security in the capital, challenging the government of President Hamid Karzai. It came about five weeks after a similar commando-style assault on a shopping center near the presidential palace and a large hotel.

"If we have security, why do we have this kind of drama?" asked Ahmad Haji Zada, 22, as he surveyed the damage to his mangled building-materials store, about a block from the two small hotels. "How is it possible for them to get into the city?"

The siege also seemed sure to raise tensions between two of Afghanistan's neighbors, India and Pakistan, longtime foes whose foreign secretaries resumed peace talks Thursday in New Delhi. Indian and Afghan government statements said many guests in the facilities bombed Friday were Indian citizens, suggesting they were the targets.

Pakistan opposes India's rising influence in Afghanistan, and U.S. and Indian officials have accused Pakistan's military intelligence service of collaborating with Afghan militants to bomb the Indian Embassy in Kabul in 2008. Pakistan has denied the allegation.

Friday's attack began when a driver detonated an explosives-packed van outside the Aria guesthouse, leaving a swimming-pool-size crater. A second bomber then blew himself up inside the building, said Zamaray Bashari, spokesman for the Afghan Interior Ministry.

Two other bombers entered another nearby guesthouse, the Park Residence, which is adjacent to a large, four-star hotel and the city's biggest shopping center. There, one bomber detonated his explosives and the other hid as green-uniformed Afghan security forces descended and a firefight ensued. Police officers killed the final bomber about four hours after the attack began, said Abdul Ghafar Sayed Zada, head of criminal investigations for the city police.

After the standoff ended, police carried out bodies swathed in floral blankets from the Park Residence, their boots crunching layers of shattered window glass. Bashari said three police officers were killed, while Karzai's office said the dead included eight Afghans, one Italian and four Indians.

India's Foreign Ministry said in a statement that nine Indians had been killed, including government officials. The statement said the attack was meant to disturb the nation's relationship with Afghanistan, where India has spent $1.5 billion over the past eight years -- its largest-ever aid package.

"We are still digging through the rubble. It's been a terrible day," an Indian government official said. "It certainly appears Indians were targeted."

Karzai condemned the attack in a statement, saying it would "not undermine our relationship with India."

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