KABUL, Afghanistan — Suicide bombers attacked in the heart of Kabul on Friday, triggering a series of explosions and gunbattles that killed at least 17 people in an area that’s home to small residential hotels used by foreigners, police and witnesses said.
The Taliban claimed responsibility, saying five suicide bombers conducted the early morning attacks on two buildings used by foreign citizens, while police said the attackers numbered at least three. Police said Indians were among those killed.
Dr. Surbod Sanjiv Paul of India stayed holed up in his bathroom for three hours inside one of the guest houses when it came under attack.
“When I was coming out, I found two or three dead bodies,” Paul said later at a military hospital, where his wounded foot was bandaged. “When firing was going on, the first car bomb exploded and the full roof came on my head.”
The attacks in Kabul came as thousands of U.S., Afghan and NATO soldiers were in their second week of a major offensive against a Taliban stronghold in the town of Marjah in Helmand province. In recent weeks, more than two dozen senior and midlevel Taliban figures have been detained in Pakistan in recent weeks, suggesting that the attack in the capital could be a way for the militants to show that the insurgency remains potent.
At least 17 people were killed in Friday’s attack and 32 wounded, said Abdul Ghafar Sayedzada, head of criminal investigation for the Kabul police. He said three of the dead were police officers and most of the civilians who were killed were Indians.
The targets were two residential hotels. A car bomb flattened the Hamid Guesthouse and assailants also attacked the nearby Park Residence, Sayedzada said. An Associated Press reporter saw police carry seven bodies from the Park Residence.
“I saw foreigners were crying and shouting,” said Najibullah, a 25-year-old hotel worker 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 explosions woke up residents near the Kabul City Center, a nine-story shopping area that includes the four-star Safi Landmark Hotel. Witnesses said one explosion created a crater about 3 feet (1 metre) wide and that windows of the nearby Safi hotel were blown out.
More than two hours after the first explosion, gunfire continued to ring out around one of the guest houses. Police with gas masks were attempting to smoke out a suspected attacker holed up in the basement of the building, according to a police officer at the scene who only gave his first name, Abdulrahman.
The Canadian Embassy issued a statement saying the violence would not undermine international commitment.
“Attacks, such as today’s bombing, will not deter Canada or its international partners from its commitment to support Afghans in their efforts to create a stable, democratic and self-sufficient society,” the embassy said in a strong condemnation of the attack.
A large plume of black smoke rose from the area. Shattered glass littered the streets, which were mostly emptied because it was the first day of the Afghan weekend. 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 pyjamas out of the area. She wore a brown sweater, but no shoes and her socks sopped up water as she walked as if in a daze down the street. “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 guest house 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.
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.
In Oct. 28, gunmen with suicide vests stormed a small residential hotel, leaving 11 dead, including five U.N. staff and three attackers. Earlier that month, on Oct. 8, a suicide car bomber detonated his vehicle outside the Indian Embassy, killing 17 people.
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.
But India’s growing role here is strongly opposed by Pakistan, which wants a friendly government here 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.