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Page last updated at 13:49 GMT, Friday, 26 February 2010

Afghanistan capital Kabul hit by suicide attack

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Eyewitness Dr Mohammad Azizi: "The police tried to stop them"

Explosions and gunfire in the centre of the Afghan capital, Kabul, have left at least 17 people dead, officials say.

The attack took place in an area of hotels and guesthouses popular with foreigners. Up to nine Indians, a Frenchman and an Italian were killed.

Three gunmen and two policemen died in a gun battle that lasted several hours. The Taliban said they were behind the attack.

President Hamid Karzai condemned the violence. India called it "barbaric".

The assault comes as Nato and Afghan forces continue Operation Moshtarak to tackle the Taliban in Helmand province.

Kabul has been relatively quiet since 18 January, when Taliban bombers and gunmen attacked government targets and shopping malls, killing 12 people.

Friday's attack is also the Taliban's first major raid since the arrest of key leader Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar in Pakistan this month.

'Crying and shouting'

The BBC's Martin Patience in Kabul says the first blast on Friday happened at 0630 local time (0200 GMT) close to the Kabul City Centre shopping area and the Safi Landmark Hotel.

ANALYSIS
Martin Patience
Martin Patience, BBC News, Kabul

This is the second attack in Kabul since the start of the year and the tactics appeared to be the same: using multiple attackers and suicide bombers for maximum impact.

Because the attack took place early in the morning, it is possible that the militants were trying to target foreigners sleeping in the guesthouses at the time. An attack on a UN guesthouse in October 2009 used similar tactics.

Whatever the motive, the Taliban - who said they carried out the latest attack - want to demonstrate that they can strike anywhere in the country. The movement is determined to show that the Afghan government and Western forces cannot control the security situation across the country and, in this case, the capital.

The Park Residence Hotel, popular with foreigners, was also close to the main blast.

A number of Indian nationals were staying in hotels in the area.

India's Foreign Minister SM Krishna said up to nine Indians were dead, including government officials.

He said: "These barbaric attacks are a matter of deep concern and are clearly aimed against the people of India and the people of Afghanistan.

"These are the handiwork of those who are desperate to undermine the friendship between India and Afghanistan."

India suffered deadly attacks on its embassy in Kabul in July 2008 and again in October 2009.

Afghan President Hamid Karzai said Friday's assault was a "terrorist attack against Indian citizens".

French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner said one French visitor to Afghanistan had been killed, while the Afghan interior ministry confirmed an Italian national was also among the dead.

Gen Abdul Rahman, Kabul's city police chief, told AFP news agency the Italian man had been staying in the Park Residence and had been helping police by telephone when militants shot him dead.

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"He was a brave man," Gen Rahman said. "He gave us precious information that allowed police to evacuate safely four other Italians."

The man worked at the Italian embassy and was a diplomatic adviser to Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, Italian Foreign Minister Franco Frattini said.

At least 30 people are reported to have been injured in the attacks.

Nato's Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen condemned the attacks.

"Those who committed them made it clear, in their choice of targets, that their aim is to reverse the progress that Afghans are making," he said in a statement.

At least two smaller explosions were reported following the main blast and security forces exchanged fire with gunmen for several hours after sealing off the area.

RECENT KABUL ATTACKS
18 Jan 2010: Taliban attack government targets and shopping malls, killing 12
15 Dec 09: Six killed in suicide attack near hotel in Wazir Akbar Khan district
24 Oct 09: Six UN staff and three Afghans killed in attack on UN guesthouse
8 Oct 09: Suicide bomber attacks Indian embassy, killing at least 17
17 Sept 09: Six Italian soldiers and 10 Afghans die in military convoy blast
18 Aug 09: Suicide blast kills 10 in attack on Western troop convoy

Sirens blared across the city and announcements from loudspeakers warned people to stay indoors. The areas around diplomatic missions and government ministries were closed to traffic.

A British national staying at the Safi Landmark, Brian Briscombe, told the BBC he awoke to shattered glass and smoke.

He stayed in his hotel room for 30 minutes but then decided to leave.

"My hand was gashed and I wanted to get it treated. But a jumpy soldier screamed and almost shot me because he saw my backpack and thought for 10 seconds that I was a suicide bomber. Luckily he calmed down and I was allowed to leave."

Operation Moshtarak continues in Helmand in the south, aiming to drive the Taliban from their strongholds around Nad Ali and Marjah. The Afghan government is now operating in the town of Marjah although troops continue to target militants in the area.

On Thursday, Maj Gen Nick Carter, commander of troops in southern Afghanistan, told the BBC there had been "a great deal of progress" in establishing security.

Friday's attack also represents the first major Taliban response to the capture of Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar in Karachi in Pakistan.

He was said to be the second in command and to have run the Taliban's leadership council and controlled their finances.

At least four Taliban "shadow governors" of provinces in Afghanistan have also reportedly been arrested in Pakistan.



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FROM OTHER NEWS SITES
Times Online Suicide squad kill foreigners in onslaught... - 9 hrs ago
The Scotsman At least 16 people die after Taleban suicide bombers target Kabul hotels - 12 hrs ago
Al Jazeera Taliban fighters attack Kabul - 12 hrs ago
Times of India Taliban bombers attack Kabul, 17 dead | - 19 hrs ago
New StatesmanTaliban attacks in Kabul leave at least 14 dead - 22 hrs ago
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