KABUL – A car bomber detonated his vehicle outside the Indian Embassy in the busy center of Afghanistan's capital on Thursday, killing 17 people and wounding nearly 80 in the second major attack in the city in less than a month.
The Taliban claimed responsibility for the 8:30 a.m. assault and said the embassy was the target.
In New Delhi, India's Foreign Secretary Nirupama Rao said that driver of the sport utility vehicle "came up to the outer perimeter wall of the embassy in a car loaded with explosives." Three Indian paramilitary soldiers on guard at the embassy's watchtower were wounded by shrapnel, Rao said.
The Interior Ministry said 15 civilians and two Afghan police officers were killed. At least 76 people were wounded, the ministry said.
It was the deadliest attack in Kabul since Sept. 17, when a bomber killed 16 people, including six Italian soldiers and 10 Afghan civilians, on a road in the center of the capital.
President Hamid Karzai, the U.S. Embassy and the United Nations mission all condemned the blast.
After months of relative calm, the Afghan capital has been shaken recently by an increasing number of homicide attacks and roadside bombings which began in the run-up to the country's disputed Aug. 20 election. The attacks usually target international military forces or government installations, but Afghan businesses and civilians are also often killed or injured.
The Taliban did not say why it targeted the Indian Embassy but the attack is likely to raise questions about a link to Pakistan, India's archrival. Extremist groups once supported by Pakistan's intelligence service have struck at Indian targets for years, and the two countries are competing for influence among different ethnic groups in Afghanistan.
A homicide attack against the Indian Embassy on July 7, 2008, killed more than 60 people. The road in front of the embassy has been barricaded since then.
The Indian news channel CNN-IBN cited Jayant Prasad, India's ambassador in Kabul, as saying Thursday's blast caused "extensive damage to the chancery." He said the bomb was so powerful that it blew off the some the embassy's doors and windows.
In Islamabad, Pakistan's foreign ministry spokesman, Abdul Basit, condemned the bombing.
"Whenever terrorist activity occurs it should strengthen our resolve to eradicate and eliminate this menace," he said.
The blast also damaged a line of shops between the embassy and the Interior Ministry, shattering glass and rattling buildings more than a mile (kilometer) away. A huge brown plume of smoke was visible in the air as ambulances raced to the scene and carried away the wounded.
A European police officer assigned as an adviser to the Interior Ministry and an Afghan interpreter were slightly wounded by flying glass, training spokesman Andrea Angeli said.
One 21-year-old Afghan man, who gave his name only as Najibullah, said he had just opened his shop when the explosion went off, knocking him unconscious. When he awoke, he said, he couldn't see anything because of dust and debris.
"Dust was everywhere. People were shouting," Najibullah said. "You couldn't see their faces because there was so much dust."
His white clothes were covered in blood after helping load four injured onto ambulances.
AP Television News footage showed local residents and soldiers pulling a charred, severed leg out of a destroyed vehicle. Others carried an apparently lifeless body on a stretcher to an ambulance.
On another stretcher, a man lay face down, one arm hanging downward, his left leg covered in blood.
Two United Nations vehicles were near the blast and one was badly damaged, spokesman Dan McNorton confirmed. Both vehicles had only a driver inside, and neither was wounded. The U.N. typically uses armored vehicles in Kabul that are designed to withstand such attacks.
One injured man said the force of the explosion threw him into the air. Mohammad Arif said he was leaving the Indian Embassy when the blast tossed him against a concrete barrier. The left side of his head was bleeding as he spoke.
The blast occurred a day after the Afghanistan war reached its eighth anniversary and as President Barack Obama considered a request for between 10,000 and 40,000 additional troops prepared by the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal.
Separately Thursday, French Defense Minister Herve Morin announced the death of a French marine killed in an IED attack on Sept 4.