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Who's to blame for Kabul bomb?

Taliban claim responsibility; Afghan speculation focuses on Pakistani elements.

A policeman secures the site of a bomb blast in Kabul Feb. 26, 2010. (Shamil Zhumatov/Reuters)

KABUL, Afghanistan — The center of Kabul was rocked by bomb blasts and gunfire Friday, leaving at least 17 people dead and more than 30 injured, according to police sources. It took security forces a little over two hours to clear the area of combatants, but it will take much more time to sift through the conflicting theories of motives and perpetrators, despite early Taliban claims of responsibility.

The first blast came just before 6:30 this morning, jolting a sleeping city awake. Friday is the Muslim holy day, meaning that shops were closed and streets all but deserted when the explosion occurred. The reverberations could be felt throughout most of Kabul.

Initial reports pegged the target as the Kabul City Center, a gleaming glass and chrome structure right in the heart of the business district. Owned by Afghan businessman Haji Abdul Qudus Safi, the complex houses the Safi Landmark, a hotel popular with visiting foreigners. The City Center has long been seen as a potential focus for terrorist attack, standing as it does all but unprotected on Ansari Square.

But City Center escaped with some damage to its numerous emerald-green windows; the two structures hit most seriously were the Park Residence, a slightly scruffy guest house across from Shar-e-Naw Park, and the neighboring Hamid Guesthouse. Both are just a few dozen meters from the City Center building, and both were home to mainly foreign guests.

At least 32 people were injured in the blasts and the gunfire that followed, as security forces attempted to dislodge the attackers from their posts.

Of the 17 people confirmed dead, the majority were Indian, according to Abdul Ghafar Sayedzada, head of the Kabul criminal investigation department, who briefed journalists throughout the morning. This gave rise to widespread speculation among Afghans that Pakistan, India’s arch-enemy and rival for Afghanistan’s friendship, was behind the attack.

President Hamid Karzai was quick to issue a statement saying that his government was launching an investigation into the assault. He emphasized that attacks on Indian citizens could not damage Indian-Afghan relations; but the raid and its aftermath are likely to fuel tension between India and Pakistan, which have recently resumed diplomatic talks for the first time since the attack on Mumbai in November 2008.

The Taliban were quick to claim responsibility. Spokesman Zabiullah Mujahed said that five suicide attackers were involved in the early morning raid; police confirmed three suicide bombers and possibly as many as five additional fighters were involved in the attack.

But, as pundits frequently point out, the Taliban is far from a cohesive body. It is, rather, made up of many different groups with differing interests and allegiances.