KABUL, Afghanistan — Taliban militants hit central Kabul early Friday morning, using a powerful car bomb and suicide vests to kill at least 16 people by targeting two guesthouses primarily used by foreigners working in Afghanistan.
The attack in Afghanistan's capital came in the midst of American-led efforts to rout Taliban forces from a key southern Afghanistan stronghold.
Zabiullah Mujahed, a Taliban spokesman, said five fighters hit the hotels to send a message to America and its military allies fighting in Afghanistan.
"Our aim is those foreigners who have troops in the country: We want to put pressure on them to leave," Mujahed said in a telephone interview.
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.
Among the dead were at least six Indians, an Italian diplomat who was reportedly talking to Afghan police when he was killed and a French documentary filmmaker.
“With every day that is passing the police are becoming weaker and weaker, not stronger,” said Sultan Mohammed Awrang, an Afghan lawmaker who was visiting a Kabul hospital where several people injured in the attack were fighting for their lives. “They can’t protect the people of Kabul.”
The strike came less than 24 hours after Afghan government leaders raised the nation’s flag in Marja, the longtime Taliban stronghold in southern Afghanistan.
American-led forces targeted Marja this month in a massive military offensive meant to drive the Taliban from their Afghanistan strongholds.
While the Taliban claimed responsibility for the attack, there was immediate speculation that Pakistan may have played a behind-the-scenes role in orchestrating the strike because the militants targeted two hotels favored by Indians.
“This is the third time that Indians have been targeted,” said Awrang. “Everyone knows where they are based and who sent them: Pakistan.”
The Indian government denounced the bombing as “heinous” and vowed to continue working with Afghanistan. “These barbaric attacks are a matter of deep concern and are clearly aimed against the people of India and the people of Afghanistan,” India’s Foreign Ministry said in a statement.
Taliban spokesman Mujahed denied, however, that the Taliban intended to hit Indians. "Our aim is not just Indian," he said. "It was their bad luck that so many of them were in the guest house.”
The attack began shortly after dawn on an overcast Friday 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 as at least three militants wearing suicide vests stormed the adjacent Park Residence hotel.
Guests inside ran to safe rooms and huddled in their rooms as the attackers fanned out through the hotel.
One unknown Italian guest was killed by militants while talking on the phone to police, 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 where the Taliban militant was trapped.
“It was a horrible experience,” said al Haq, who spent the afternoon searching Kabul hospitals for friends and colleagues.
The attack also ravaged the nearby Kabul City Center complex, which includes a popular mall and the seven-story Safi Landmark hotel.
The attack, which shattered windows more than two miles away, was the fourth serious blast to hit Kabul in four months.
On Jan. 18, suicide bombers and gunmen killed five people in an elaborate attack on prominent government buildings and an adjacent mall in Kabul. Seven attackers were killed in that confrontation.
In mid-December, a suicide car bomber killed eight people when he hit another Kabul hotel used by international aid workers and coalition military forces.
And, last October, gunman attacked a Kabul guest house filled with United Nations staff, killing eight people. That attack was widely seen at the time as an attempt by anti-government militants to disrupt the presidential runoff election.
That strike prompted the United Nations to scale back its international presence in Kabul by sending hundreds of staff to work in Dubai and other parts of Afghanistan.
It was also the third major attack to hit Indian targets in Kabul.
Suicide bombers have twice targeted the Indian embassy in Kabul over the last two years. The Taliban claimed responsibility for an Oct. 8 suicide bombing outside the Indian embassy in Kabul that killed 17. And more than 50 people were killed on July 8, 2008 in a similar attack on the embassy.
Friday’s attack also came one day after India and Pakistan resumed diplomatic talks for the first time since the Mumbai attacks in November, 2008.
India wanted to make terrorism the central focus of the talks, but Pakistan sought a wider discussion.
Indian paramedic Manohar Singh Rathore had been in the country only 15 days when he was lightly injured in Friday’s attack.
The 40-year-old worked at a capital hospital named after Indira Gandhi, the former Indian prime minister assassinated in 1984.
“Everything that I saw about Afghanistan on television I have now seen,” said Rathore, who is already making plans to return to India.
As dusk settled on Kabul, Indian engineer al-Haq emerged from a Kabul hospital with two somber colleagues.
“Did you hear?” one of the men asked. “We found our friend. He is dead.”
(Bakhshi is a McClatchy special correspondent.)