/ 15 December 2009

Suicide attack near Kabul hotel kills eight

A suicide bomber struck an upmarket district of the Afghan capital Kabul on Tuesday near a hotel and guest house frequented by foreigners, killing eight people and wounding another 40, officials said.

It was the latest in a string of attacks in Kabul blamed on Taliban militants and coincided with a conference on corruption being hosted by Afghan President Hamid Karzai.

The attacker blew himself up outside the gate of the Heetal hotel in the Wazir Akbar Khan district, near a guest house and the home of Afghanistan’s former first vice-president Ahmad Zia Massoud.

The blast set off a fire, partially gutting villas and shattering windows in the heavily fortified neighbourhood, which is home to many foreign embassies and aid groups as well as Afghan government officials.

“All the doors of the taxi were blown open by the force of the blast and the car turned full circle because the force of the blast was so big,” said witness Nanghirlay (25), who was travelling two blocks away when the bomber struck.

The explosion shattered windows at the Heetal hotel and Massoud’s home, where people carried out a dead bodyguard in a blanket as a woman with blood smeared across her face staggered to safety, Agence France-Presse reporters said.

Twisted metal and collapsed masonry littered the street under a cloud of acrid black smoke from about 10 vehicles engulfed in flames, witnesses said.

“Eight people have been killed. Four are women. Four others are male and 40 other people have been wounded. It was a suicide bombing,” Interior Ministry spokesperson Zamarai Bashary told AFP.

Men, women and children were among the wounded, officials said.

A foreigner was also killed, one government official said on condition of anonymity because he was not authorised to release the information. He did not disclose the nationality.

The Heetal Hotel itself protected by two entrance gates and high walls and villas in the area are generally in high-security compounds with walls, barbed wire and often private security guards.

Harjeet Singh, general manager of IT company IO Global Services, told AFP that 40 Indians were staying in the guest house, including 20 from his company.

Five were wounded, including two IT workers, a cleaner, a cook and a guard, who were all Indians, he told AFP at the bomb site.

“We normally leave at 8.15 to 8.30 to go to our office. The injured are those staying at the guest house, they are all Indians,” he said.

India is a huge investor in post-Taliban Afghanistan, where Indian films and music are hugely popular among certain groups.

Karzai strongly condemned the “terrorist attack” as “brutal, inhuman and un-Islamic” and ordered a swift investigation to hunt down the masterminds.

He told the anti-corruption conference, attended by the US ambassador, that two of Massoud’s bodyguards were killed.

It was not immediately clear if the bomber’s target was the former vice president, the hotel or the guest house.

On October 28, the Taliban claimed responsibility for a gun and suicide attack on another guest house in a neighbouring district used by the United Nations, killing five UN staff.

The Indian embassy in Kabul has been bombed twice and an attack last year that killed 60 people remains the deadliest attack on the Afghan capital.

“One of our guards was killed. The explosion happened down the road, close to our hotel. Not in our hotel,” said Heetal finance manager Bejan Salehi.

At the start of a three-day national anti-corruption conference, Karzai pledged “practical steps” to curb graft.

“With mere slogans we cannot eliminate corruption,” he told the gathering of ministers, ambassadors, judges, lawyers and counter corruption bodies.

Washington has warned Karzai to fight corruption or see his cabinet bypassed in favour of lower level officials in an effort to provide services as part of a new US war plan deploying 30 000 extra American troops to fight the Taliban.

Kabul has been rocked by a rising number of suicide and rocket attacks with the Taliban-led insurgency at its deadliest in the eight years since US-led troops ousted the Islamist militia’s regime.

In the eastern province of Paktya, a mine exploded Tuesday killing five people including a woman outside the offices of a private security company, provincial police chief Azizudin Wardak told AFP. — AFP