KABUL, Afghanistan — Taliban militants claimed credit for a series of bombings that hit central Kabul early Friday, saying they were intended to force the U.S. and its allies to withdraw their militaries from Afghanistan.
At least 16 people were killed in the explosions, which targeted two guesthouses primarily used by foreigners. Among the dead were at least six Indians, an Italian diplomat and a French documentary filmmaker.
"Our aim is those foreigners who have troops in the country: We want to put pressure on them to leave," Zabiullah Mujahed, a Taliban spokesman, told McClatchy.
The Indian casualties raised speculation here that Pakistan, India's bitter rival whose intelligence agency has long had ties to the Taliban, might have helped in the attack.
"This is the third time that Indians have been targeted," said Sultan Mohammed Awrang, an Afghan lawmaker. "Everyone knows where they are based and who sent them: Pakistan."
Mujahed denied that Indians had been special targets.
"Our aim is not just Indian," he said. "It was their bad luck that so many of them were in the guest house."
The assault was the fifth major attack on Kabul in five months and is likely to reignite concerns that the Afghan capital, long viewed as a relative safe haven, is becoming an increasing target for anti-government insurgents.
"With every day that is passing, the police are becoming weaker and weaker, not stronger," said Awrang, the Afghan legislator. "They can't protect the people of Kabul."
Mujahed said five Taliban fighters undertook the suicide attacks, which began shortly after dawn on an overcast day when Kabul's streets were mostly empty.
The initial car bomb blast, about 6:40 a.m. local time, decimated a small guesthouse filled with Indian engineers, doctors and technicians. The explosion left a gaping seven-foot-deep crater in the street.
At least three militants wearing suicide vests stormed the adjacent Park Residence hotel after the car bomb exploded.
Guests inside ran to safe rooms and huddled in their rooms as the attackers fanned out through the hotel.
The Italian diplomat was talking on the phone to police when he was killed, said Interior Ministry spokesman Zemari Bashari.
While two suicide bombers blew themselves up inside the hotel, a third holed up in one of the rooms and fought off Afghan police for more than three hours.
Aziz al Haq, a 29-year-old electrical engineer from India, said he was trapped with seven or eight people in an adjacent room.
"It was a horrible experience," said al Haq, who spent the afternoon searching Kabul hospitals for friends and colleagues.
Later, he emerged from a Kabul hospital with two somber colleagues.
"Did you hear?" one of the men asked. "We found our friend. He is dead."
The violence recalled other recent Kabul attacks: a Jan. 18 onslaught that killed five people in an elaborate attack on prominent government buildings; a mid-December suicide car bombing that killed eight at a hotel used by international aid workers and coalition military forces, and an attack last October that killed eight people at a guest house filled with United Nations staff. That strike prompted the U.N. to scale back its presence in Kabul by sending hundreds of staff to work in Dubai and other parts of Afghanistan.
Suicide bombers have twice targeted the Indian embassy in Kabul during the past two years: once in October, killing 17, and previously on July 8, 2008, when 50 people died.
(Bakhshi is a McClatchy special correspondent.)
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