Suicide blast in Kabul outside restaurant popular with foreigners
Afghan police arrive at the scene of an explosion in Kabul on January 17, 2014 - by Johannes Eisele
The explosion near the Taverna du Liban in the upmarket Wazir Akbar Khan neighbourhood was quickly claimed by Taliban militants fighting against the Afghan government and US-led foreign forces in the country.
Elite security commandos rushed to seal off the small streets around the restaurant as sporadic gunfire erupted for a short time after the blast.
"There has been an explosion near the Lebanese restaurant in Wazir Akbar Khan, and gun shots have also been fired," Sayed Gul Agha Hashemi, head of Kabul police's criminal branch, told AFP.
The long-established Taverna is a regular dining spot for foreign diplomats, consultants, aid workers and Afghans, and is likely to have been busy with customers on Friday, the weekly holiday in Afghanistan.
Like many restaurants in Kabul, it runs strict security checks with diners patted down by armed guards and passing through at least two steel doors before gaining entry.
It has an enclosed outside seating area which is heated in the harsh Afghan winter, and customers often share a tobacco shisha pipe after their meal.
Senior police officials confirmed the attack was a suicide blast, though it was unclear whether the bomber had detonated himself or been shot first by guards.
The Taliban's main spokesman claimed the attack targeted the restaurant deliberately.
"As a result of a martyrdom attack on a foreign restaurant in the Wazir Akbar Khan area of Kabul, a large number of foreign occupiers, most of them Germans, have suffered casualties," spokesman Zabiullah Mujahid said in emailed statement.
The Taliban often make exaggerated and incorrect claims about death tolls and the nationalities of those affected.
The United States and British embassies are among those situated in Wazir Akbar Khan, though neither was directly affected by the blast.
The Afghan capital has often been hit by suicide and other bomb attacks, with the most recent incident last Sunday when a Taliban suicide bomber riding a bicycle detonated himself next to a police bus, killing a policeman and a civilian.
Afghanistan's intelligence agency has claimed to have foiled several plots in the capital involving truck bombs and suicide gunmen over the past year.
A series of attacks in 2013 targeted foreign compounds, the Supreme Court, the airport and the presidential palace in Kabul.
NATO forces are withdrawing from Afghanistan after more than a decade of fighting the Taliban, but negotiations have stalled on a security accord that would allow some US and NATO troops to stay after 2014.
The bilateral security agreement (BSA) would see several thousand US troops remain in Afghanistan to provide training and assistance in the battle against the Taliban.
Afghanistan's fledgling security forces face a difficult year in 2014 as insurgents attempt to disrupt elections on April 5 that will choose a successor to President Hamid Karzai, and as NATO's combat mission winds down by December.
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