KABUL, Afghanistan - At least 18 people, many of them Indian nationals, were killed on Friday in suicide and car bomb attacks on two guesthouses popular with foreigners in the center of Kabul, police officials said. In a telephone interview, a Taliban spokesman claimed responsibility for the attacks, which coincided with a major offensive by American-led coalition forces against militants in the southern province of Helmand, a central element in President Obama's strategy in rural Afghanistan.
President Hamid Karzai's office said the dead included four Indians and an Italian. But the Ministry of External Affairs in New Delhi, citing preliminary information from the Afghan authorities, said "up to nine Indians," including government officials, had been killed. More than 30 people were reported to have been wounded.
The ministry called the assault a "heinous terrorist attack" following two other attacks on Indians in Kabul in the past 20 months. "These are the handiwork of those who are desperate to undermine the friendship between India and Afghanistan and do not wish to see a strong, democratic and pluralistic Afghanistan."
Some of the Indian casualties worked at the Indira Gandhi Child Health Institute. The dead also included two Afghan police officers, the police said.
In one attack, a car bomb exploded outside a guesthouse popular with Indians while suicide bombers were among a team that stormed another guesthouse frequented by Britons and Americans, starting a firefight with security forces that lasted for more than 90 minutes.
Zabiullah Mujahid, a Taliban spokesman, said the suicide bombers focused on two sites in the Shari Now district "where the foreign people are staying."
"The actual targets are foreign people," he added in a telephone interview.
The attacks seemed likely to reverberate in the region, coming just one day after senior Indian and Pakistani officials met in New Delhi for their first diplomatic meeting since the Mumbai attacks of 2008.
In a statement quoted by The Associated Press, President Karzai said he "strongly condemns" the violence on Friday. "Attacks on Indian citizens will not affect relations between India and Afghanistan," he added.
The attacks spread debris and shattered windows in an adjacent shopping center and hotel. They were the fourth assault on the capital since October.
The guesthouses were located adjacent to the Safi Landmark hotel and shopping center, which the police initially said had been the target. However, the fact that the guesthouses used by foreigners were attacked seemed to confirm the Taliban's assertion that the insurgents were aiming at outsiders
Gen. Sayed Ghafar, the chief of the Criminal Investigations Department of the Kabul police, put the death toll at 18 - a relatively high figure for attacks in central Kabul - and said the wounded included some police officers.
The assault began with a large explosion that shook the city center shortly after 6:30 a.m. That was followed by gunfire and two smaller explosions.
"I looked out at the gate, but there was no gate," said Manuwar Shah, 20, who was standing at the reception desk of the hotel when the attack started. "It had been blown off." Then, he said, he ran into a room before taking shelter in the hotel basement and was trapped there during the fighting.
It was the second major attack in Kabul this year. The first one took place Jan. 18, when seven gunmen attacked a popular shopping center and several surrounding buildings near the presidential palace and a hotel favored by Westerners.
The Taliban spokesman said at least five insurgents carried out the attacks, including two suicide bombers who detonated explosives-packed vests near the hotel and a shopping mall, Reuters reported.
The assault reflected an accelerating trend over the past year for the Taliban to spill out of rural areas, where the vast majority of coalition troops are deployed in small outposts in the countryside. On most days, the capital is calm.
But a series of attacks has demoralized Afghans as militants seek to spread the impression that virtually no part of the country is immune from the conflict.
One year ago, militants attacked the Ministry of Justice, killing guards and stalking the halls for victims. Apart from insurgents, at least 10 people died
In October, militants wearing suicide belts attacked a United Nations guesthouse in Kabul and killed eight people, including five of the organization's workers. In December, a suicide car bomber struck the Heetal Hotel, killing eight people and wounding 48. That was followed by the Jan. 18 attack in which seven people were killed.
Hari Kumar reported from New Delhi and Alan Cowell from Paris.