KABUL, Afghanistan — A Taliban suicide bomber blew himself up Friday inside a supermarket popular with Westerners, killing eight people – some of them foreigners – in an attack that showed insurgents can still strike forcibly in the capital despite tightened security.
The Taliban said their target was an official with the U.S. security contractor formerly known as Blackwater whom they followed into the store. Although the insurgent group regularly attacks those allied with NATO forces or the Afghan government, it was not clear why they specifically targeted the company, now known as Xe Services.
It was the third deadly attack in Kabul in less than two months and the worst on a civilian target in the city since February 2010, when suicide attackers charged two residential hotels, killing 20 people.
Afghan officials have said that the relatively low level of violence in Kabul in the last half of 2010 could be credited to stepped-up raids on insurgent cells and the highly publicized "ring-of-steel" of checkpoints surrounding the capital.
The Finest supermarket – which sells such American staples as corn flakes, peanut butter and pasta sauce but also delicacies like brie, caviar and chocolate – was packed with foreigners and upper-class Afghans shopping on their day off when shots rang out about 2:30 p.m., sending customers scurrying for cover.
The assailant threw at least one grenade into the aisles and then detonated his explosives, said Ahmad Zaki, a criminal investigator with the Interior Ministry.
"To my left, I heard a gunshot. A bomb went off. Everyone was running to the back of the building," said Mary Hayden, a Western consultant who was in the store.
The blast blew out the store's glass doors and sparked a small fire in the frozen food section. Black, acrid smoke filled the main floor of the two-story building. Young men who sell phone cards on the street outside the store rushed in to help pull out the injured and the dead.
"I was on the first floor and we heard a boom," said Moujib, a 14-year-old Afghan boy who gave only one name. "I might have heard some shooting. Then I saw fire everywhere." He was crying and clinging to his mother as he spoke.
Police placed bodies on cots in the street outside the shop. One woman killed in the blast was partially covered in a towel, but her mangled legs and black, high-heeled boots were visible. Police lifted the towel and reporters could see that her abdomen had been torn open.
When police ran out of cots and towels, they started carrying out bodies wrapped up in publicity banners from the store.
The dead included two Afghan women, a male Afghan child and at least two or three foreigners, said Deputy Kabul Police Chief Daud Amin. He said the other two victims had not been identified.
Fifteen other people were wounded, including a Briton, a Canadian and three Filipinos, he said.
Four foreign women and one man died in the blast, said Mohammad Zahir, the chief of criminal investigation for the Kabul police. Among the Afghans killed was a young child, he said. Fifteen other people were wounded.
The identities of the victims were not immediately released by either foreign or Afghan officials.
Mounds of canned goods and boxes of cereals, snacks and other merchandise were strewn across the floor. More than an hour after the bombing, a charred smell permeated the store.
The store is on the edge of a heavily guarded neighborhood full of embassies and luxurious homes, but faces out on an intersection that is busy with all types of vehicles at any time of day. Police man a checkpoint right outside the store where they regularly pull aside suspicious-looking cars.
President Hamid Karzai condemned the attack, saying the "enemies of Afghanistan are so desperate that they are now killing civilians, including women, inside a food market."
Taliban spokesman Zabiullah Mujahid said in a statement posted on the group's website that none of those killed were truly civilians because the attack was "in a secured area with commercial stores for foreign occupiers"
He said the attacker killed a senior Xe official.
A representative for USTC Holdings, which recently bought North Carolina-based Xe, said several Xe personnel were near the site of the attack but that no one associated with the company was killed or wounded.
The attack also did not affect anyone that Xe had been hired to protect, said Harry Clark, an adviser to USTC.
Xe Services is one of many private security companies that are disliked by many Afghans because they appear to operate with impunity. Karzai, who has moved to ban many of the guns for hire, has complained for years that many private guards commit human rights abuses, pay protection money to the Taliban and undercut the country's national security forces by offering higher wages and better living conditions.
Kabul experienced a period of relative calm in the last half of 2010, with fewer large-scale attacks and more reports of would-be attackers thwarted by arrests. Afghans formally took over responsibility for security in the capital in 2008, and the city has been held up as a model for the rest of the country of how Afghans can take on the authority for safeguarding themselves.
The NATO and U.S. plan for drawing down forces in Afghanistan depends on turning over other provinces to Afghan control, with the aim of giving all security authority to the Afghans by 2014.
The last attack in Kabul was Jan. 12, when a suicide bomber on a motorbike targeted a minibus carrying Afghan intelligence service employees, killing two and wounding more than 30.
That followed a Dec. 19 attack in which two insurgents strapped with explosives ambushed a bus carrying Afghan army officers to work during the morning rush hour, killing five and wounding nine.
Associated Press writer Deb Riechmann contributed to this report from Kabul.