KABUL, Afghanistan – A suicide bomber killed eight people, including five foreigners, inside a high-end grocery store on Friday in the heart of a heavily guarded district of the Afghan capital that's home to many diplomats and Westerners.
Initial reports that there were two Americans among those killed were premature, said Caitlin Hayden, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Embassy in Kabul. She said the U.S. was working with its Afghan partners to confirm whether any Americans were killed but that no Americans had been identified as of late Friday.
The Taliban claimed responsibility for what it called an attack targeting an employee of the U.S. security contractor formerly known as Blackwater in a district long seen as one of the safest in the city.
A man and four women from outside Afghanistan died in the blast, said Mohammad Zahir, the chief of criminal investigation for the Kabul police. The other three victims included an Afghan child. Fifteen other people were wounded.
The identities of the dead were not immediately released by either foreign or Afghan officials.
Ahmad Zaki, another criminal investigator, said the suicide bomber threw at least one grenade and fired shots, prompting customers to run to another area of the store, known as Finest.
"Then he blew himself up," Zaki said.
The explosion ignited a small fire in the frozen food section and filled the main floor of the two-story store with smoke.
"To my left, I heard a gunshot. A bomb went off. Everyone was running to the back of the building," said Mary Hayden, a Western consultant who was inside the story.
Afghan President Hamid Karzai said the "enemies of Afghanistan are so desperate that they are now killing civilians, including women, inside a food market."
The U.S. Embassy in Kabul condemned what it described as a "senseless act."
"By attacking a peaceful place of commerce, insurgents have once again demonstrated their lack of respect for the safety of the Afghan people," the embassy said.
In a text message sent to reporters, Taliban spokesman Zabiullah Mujahid wrote: "It was an attack on the chief of Blackwater."
Later, in a message posted on the Internet, the spokesman said that a suicide bomber named Attaullah from Kabul province first targeted Blackwater employees with a machine gun and later detonated his explosive belt.
"Preliminary reports indicate that the successful attack resulted in the killing of a senior Blackwater official with a number of agent army soldiers, and wounded many others," the statement said, according to a translation by SITE Intelligence Group, a U.S.-based organization that tracks militant websites.
Blackwater Worldwide, which is based in North Carolina and is now called Xe Services, is one of many private security companies that are disliked by many Afghans because they appear to operate with impunity. Karzai, who has moved to ban many of the guns-for-hire, has complained for years that many private guards commit human rights abuses, pay protection money to the Taliban and undercut the country's national security forces by offering higher wages and better living conditions.
A spokeswoman for Xe did not immediately return a telephone call seeking comment.
The store was full of foreign customers, according to Moujib, a 14-year-old Afghan boy who uses just one name.
"I was on the first floor and we heard a boom," he said, crying and clinging to his mother. "I might have heard some shooting. Then I saw fire everywhere."
Yama, an Afghan man who sells phone cards at a traffic circle just outside the store, said he and other sellers then rushed inside to help wounded and dazed customers from the store.
"They were looking around like they didn't know what had happened," he said.
Kabul has witnessed a number of suicide attacks in recent years.
In July 2008, a suicide car bomb blew up outisde the gates of the Indian Embassy in Kabul, killing more than 60 people.
In Nov. 2009, Taliban militants wearing police uniforms stormed a residential hotel packed with foreigners killing 11, including five United Nations workers and three attackers.
In Dec. 2009, a suicide car bomber struck near the home of a former Afghan vice president and a hotel frequented by Westerners, killing at least eight people and wounding nearly 40. The attack occurred in the same neighborhood as Friday's grocery store attack.
In May 2010, a Taliban suicide bomber attacked a NATO convoy, killing 18 people including six NATO service members — five Americans and a Canadian.
The last attack in Kabul occurred on Jan. 12 when a suicide bomber on a motorbike targeted a minibus carrying Afghan intelligence service employees, killing at least two and wounding more than 30.
Associated Press writer Deb Riechmann contributed to this report from Kabul.