16 killed in Kabul attacks

Taliban claim responsibility; Indians target

Afghan security forces kept watch from a damaged building in Kabul after insurgent attacks yesterday. Afghan security forces kept watch from a damaged building in Kabul after insurgent attacks yesterday. (Ahmad Nazar/ Associated Press)
By Amir Shah and Deb Riechmann
Associated Press / February 27, 2010

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KABUL, Afghanistan - Insurgents struck yesterday at hotels in the heart of Kabul with suicide attackers and a car bomb, killing at least 16 people - half of them foreigners - in an assault that showed the militants remain a potent force despite setbacks on the battlefield and the arrest of more than a dozen key leaders.

The Taliban claimed responsibility for the attacks, which Afghanistan’s president, Hamid Karzai, said targeted Indians working in Kabul.

At least six of the dead were Indian citizens, including some government officials, Indian authorities said. The Taliban have long opposed India’s involvement in Afghanistan and its ties to an Afghan group that helped the United States oust the Islamist regime in late 2001.

A French filmmaker and an Italian diplomat also were killed, their governments said. The Kabul police chief said the Italian, Pietro Antonio Colazzo, died a hero, slain by the Taliban when they found he was phoning tips to police from inside his hotel where attackers were holed up.

Italy’s news agency ANSA said Colazzo was deputy chief of the Kabul office of the Italian foreign intelligence agency and had been in the country for about two years. Police said three attackers died in addition to the 16 victims.

The attacks follow a string of setbacks suffered by the Taliban, who have all but lost control of a major southern stronghold of Marja in a major offensive by thousands of US, Afghan, and NATO troops. The British government said it lost a soldier yesterday in an explosion during a foot patrol - the 14th NATO service member to die in the operation.

Furthermore, more than two dozen senior and mid-level Taliban figures have been detained in Pakistan in recent weeks. That suggests the attacks in Kabul were a way for the Taliban to show that they remain a threat, capable of striking even in the center of the Afghan capital.

“Yesterday, the US was showing to the world, ‘See, we are raising the flag in Marja and isolating the Taliban,’ ’’ said Kabul political analyst Wahid Mazhda. “The Taliban once again are showing their power, saying, ‘We are still active.’ ’’

The four-hour assault began at about 6:30 a.m. when a car bomb devastated a residential hotel used by Indian doctors working at an Indian government-sponsored health center. Soon after, a suicide attacker detonated his explosives outside the demolished hotel.

As police arrived, two attackers toting a rocket-propelled grenade launcher and rifles ran into the hotel where the Italian was staying. Police surrounded it, trading gunfire with the insurgents holed up there.

One attacker blew himself up, killing three police officers and wounding six when police stormed the building, officials said. Police shot and killed the other attacker.

As the gun battle unfolded, the scene was chaotic. The body of a man wearing a red shirt was lying near a burned-out vehicle in the rubble of the Arya hotel where the Indians lived. The windows of the nearby luxury Safi Landmark Hotel were blown out by the car bomb, littering the street with glass, masonry, and other debris.

“I saw foreigners were crying and shouting,’’ said Najibullah, a 25-year-old Safi hotel worker who ran into the street in his underwear after the first explosion. “It was a very bad situation inside. God helped me, otherwise I would be dead.’’

Police officers and rescue workers carrying the wounded lumbered down the rain-soaked streets, largely empty because yesterday was a holiday marking the birth of Islam’s Prophet Mohammed. Police escorted a dazed middle-age woman dressed in pink pajamas but no shoes - her socks soaked with rainwater.

“I haven’t seen . . . where are my . . .,’’ she muttered, speaking only in fragments.

As the fighting raged, Taliban spokesman Zabiullah Mujahid phoned the Associated Press from an unknown location to claim responsibility, saying five suicide attackers were “targeting two places used by foreigners.’’

The assault was the deadliest in the capital since Oct. 8, when a suicide car bomber killed 17 people outside the Indian Embassy. A suicide car bomber killed more than 60 people in a 2008 attack at the gates of the Indian Embassy in July 2008. India accused archrival Pakistan’s spy agency of involvement in that attack.

Although India made no such allegations after yesterday’s assault, the deaths of so many Indians raised speculation that the attack could be linked to the rivalry between the two nuclear-armed neighbors, both deeply involved in Afghanistan.