Indian embassy blast kills 17 in Afghan capital

KABUL (Reuters) - A large bomb exploded outside the Indian embassy in central Kabul on Thursday, killing 17 people and wounding 76, in the latest of a series of attacks by militants on diplomatic and government buildings in the Afghan capital.

Violence has reached its worst levels of the eight-year war as Taliban insurgents have extended fighting to previously secure areas, including Kabul. Attacks in the capital had been rare until the start of last year.

Since 2008 there have been around a dozen major attacks in the city, including raids on the German embassy, the headquarters for the NATO-led force, the Information Ministry and the Justice Ministry buildings, as well as other targets near the U.S. embassy, presidential palace and airport.

Thursday’s blast tore through a market building across the street from the heavily fortified Indian embassy compound, leaving rubble and debris strewn across the road, where the Afghan Interior Ministry is also located.

The Taliban, toppled as Afghanistan’s rulers in 2001 following a U.S.-led invasion, claimed responsibility for the bombing and said the embassy was the target. The Taliban said the attack was carried out by a suicide bomber in a sport utility vehicle.

It was the second big attack on the Indian mission in 15 months. India said that all its embassy staff were safe.

U.S. General Stanley McChrystal, the top U.S. and NATO commander in Afghanistan, has asked for 40,000 more troops as the minimum necessary to prevail in the counterinsurgency fight, two sources told Reuters in Washington.

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The sources said McChrystal gave President Barack Obama two other options: sending an even larger number of troops, and the “high-risk” road of sending no additional troops.

Washington is embroiled in a heated debate over whether to boost the size of its force in Afghanistan to try to put down the Taliban insurgency or to scale back the U.S. mission and focus on a more modest goal of striking at al Qaeda cells.

There are now more than 100,000 Western troops serving in Afghanistan, about two-thirds of them American. The United States has about 65,000 troops in Afghanistan, and that number already is due to increase to 68,000 later this year.

In Washington, Said Jawad, Afghanistan’s ambassador to the United States, urged the American public to support the deployment of the additional 40,000 troops, telling Reuters that any less would not do the job.

In addition, the U.N. Security Council extended the mandate of the NATO force in Afghanistan for a further year and called on countries to boost its strength.

This year has been the deadliest of the war for foreign troops in the country. The rise in casualties is contributing to a decline in U.S. public support for the war.

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In July last year, the Indian embassy was the scene of the war’s deadliest attack on the capital. In that attack, a Taliban suicide car bomber killed 58 people, including two senior Indian diplomats, and wounded a further 141.

Fifteen civilians and two policemen were killed in the latest attack, the Interior Ministry said. A further 76 people, including 63 civilians and 13 policemen were wounded, it said.

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“I believe the suicide bomb was directed against the embassy because the suicide bomber came up to the outside perimeter wall of the embassy with a car loaded with explosives obviously with the aim of targeting the embassy,” Indian Foreign Secretary Nirupama Rao told reporters in India.

Rao said the blast was similar in size to the 2008 attack but that measures taken since then to secure the embassy had worked effectively in protecting its embassy staff.

The road, which is also home to the Interior Ministry and the Indonesian embassy, had been closed to traffic since the 2008 attack and was reopened only in the past few weeks. A large concrete blast barrier was erected down the center of the road.

Indian authorities blamed the Pakistani intelligence service for last year’s blast.

The Taliban have made a comeback in recent years and the militants appear to be gaining in strength. On Wednesday, the Taliban claimed to have hoisted their flag in a remote district in the east of the country, where days earlier they had inflicted the deadliest battlefield casualties on U.S. troops in more than a year.

Militants stormed two remote outposts in eastern Nuristan province on Saturday, killing eight U.S. and two Afghan troops.

Additional reporting by Sayed Salahuddin and Jonathon Burch, Krittivas Mukherjee in New Delhi and Patricia Zengerle and Sue Pleming in Washington; Writing by Jonathon Burch; Editing by Will Dunham and Jeremy Laurence