KABUL, Afghanistan – A suicide bomber struck Kabul's first Western-style shopping mall, killing two security guards at the entrance in the second attack in less than a month targeting a site frequented by foreigners and upscale Afghans in the heavily secured capital.
The Ministry of Interior said the bomber detonated his explosives at the gates of the Kabul City Center shopping mall, which also houses the four-star Safi Landmark hotel. Two more people were wounded in Monday's blast.
"I was just outside my restaurant and suddenly I heard a huge explosion," said Ahmad Shah, 23, who works in a small eatery near the Safi Landmark. "I saw a large fire right at the gate of the City Center."
An Associated Press reporter at the scene said the building was surrounded by hundreds of Afghan security forces. The blast destroyed the guarded entrance and blew out windows. Several shops nearby also were damaged.
Severed body parts could be seen on the ground near the blast site.
A spokesman for the Taliban, Zabiullah Mujahid, claimed responsibility for the attack in a mobile phone text message sent to reporters.
Government officials, businessmen and foreigners regularly hold meetings at the Safi Landmark.
The Safi was heavily damaged a year ago when suicide attackers struck two residential hotels nearby, killing 20 people, including nine foreigners. After that attack, shops at the center, which sell jewelry, electronics and clothing, were closed for months.
Shopkeepers nearby said Monday's damage appeared to be confined to the guarded entrance area, which was fortified after last year's attack.
President Hamid Karzai condemned the bombing, which he said was aimed at civilians.
"Targeting a nonmilitary location shows how desperate and hopeless the enemies of Afghanistan have become," Karzai said in a statement.
It was the first bombing in the capital since Jan. 28, when a suicide attacker blew himself up at an upscale Kabul supermarket, killing eight people.
Elsewhere in Afghanistan, NATO said a homemade bomb killed a coalition service member in the south. It didn't say where exactly the blast occurred or provide the service member's nationality.
The British Ministry of Defense said two soldiers from the Royal Logistic Corps were killed in a fire at Camp Bastion, the main British military base in Afghanistan. The base is northwest of Lashkar Gah, the capital of Helmand province.
A total of 14 NATO troops have been killed this month.
Last year was the deadliest of the nearly decadelong war for international troops, with more than 700 killed, compared with the previous high of just more than 500 in 2009.
In central Afghanistan, an avalanche killed 16 people over the past four days. Fourteen victims were members of two families whose houses were crushed, said deputy police chief of Day Kundi province, Sayed Bakir Mortazawi.
He said the remote mountainous region where the avalanche occurred lacks adequate health care facilities and snowplows to clear the roads.
Separately in the capital, armed Afghan security forces, prosecutors and representatives of a special court forced their way into the Independent Election Commission and sealed a vote-counting center and a warehouse full of ballots, according to Abdullah Ahmadzai, the chief electoral officer of the IEC.
The incident was the latest in a dispute over a special tribunal, backed by Karzai, that is investigating allegations of fraud in last year's parliamentary elections. While he hasn't said so publicly, it is widely believed that Karzai is unhappy with the slate of winning candidates and thinks fraud reduced voter turnout among his fellow ethnic Pashtuns.
Ahmadzai said the group forced their way inside the building, defying his instructions for armed men to remain outside. Once inside, they sealed the data center, a huge hall where about 400 people have worked to count votes and a warehouse where the results of 2,300 polling stations in Kabul are stored, he said.
Ahmadzai said he suspects two events triggered the incident. On Saturday, Afghan lawmakers called the special court unconstitutional and urged Karzai to disband it. On Sunday, Ahmadzai said the IEC received a letter from the attorney general's office demanding cooperation with the court.
Ahmadzai said the IEC will cooperate with criminal investigations linked to the election, but added that complaints about alleged election fraud have already been probed, the election results have been certified, winning candidates have been seated in parliament, and the legislature has opened.
A statement from the Afghan Attorney General's office said only that officials with the special court and prosecutor's office went to the IEC compound to seal ballot boxes and that the IEC had agreed to cooperate with the special court's investigations. The statement said the special court was continuing its inquiry with the assistance of 14-member panel of legal, judicial, government and election officials.
Associated Press writers Amir Shah, Deb Riechmann and Adam Schreck contributed reporting.