Reporting from Kabul, Afghanistan — A suicide bomber struck a hotel and shopping complex in the heart of Kabul on Monday, killing at least two people in the second high-profile attack in Afghanistan's capital in less than three weeks.
The thunderous explosion at the entrance to the shopping mall, which came just as the lunch hour was ending, triggered panic in the bustling district. Street vendors ducked into alleyways and women in enveloping blue burkas wailed as gunfire erupted. Fleeing passersby splashed through puddles of slush left over from a weekend snowfall. Motorists made abrupt, screeching U-turns.
The Taliban claimed responsibility for the attack, with spokesman Zabiullah Mujahid saying it was carried out by a team of four "martyrdom seekers." It was not clear whether the gunfire that broke out after the blast came only from police or whether other assailants were involved.
The attack represents a setback for Western military commanders, who had recently touted nearly a year of relative calm in the capital, crediting tighter security and a concerted campaign of strikes against the Haqqani network. The group, an offshoot of the Taliban, had previously carried out attacks in Kabul.
Although violence has crept upward during the last two months — including, most notably, an attack on a Western-style supermarket in Kabul's diplomatic district on Jan. 28 that killed at least eight people — there had not been a large-scale strike in the capital before that since last spring.
President Hamid Karzai condemned the attack as "un-Islamic," denouncing the targeting of innocent civilians.
Monday's attack came two days after a team of gunmen and bombers in the southern city of Kandahar overran a complex of shops and a wedding hall, then used it as a staging ground to aim rocket-propelled grenades at the provincial police headquarters across the street.
Mujahid, the Taliban spokesman, said the Kabul attackers had intended to use the multistory hotel and shopping complex to fire on nearby government buildings. But that effort failed because guards stopped the bomber before he could get inside, resulting in a much lower death toll than the 19 people, mostly police, who were killed Saturday in Kandahar.
The complex hit in Monday's attack, the Safi Landmark hotel and Kabul City Center shopping mall, is near the site of another strike by insurgents a year ago. That attack, targeting guesthouses, left 16 people dead.