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 the 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 alleys, and women in enveloping blue burkas wailed as gunfire erupted. Fleeing passers-by splashed through puddles of slush left over from a weekend snowfall. Motorists made abrupt, screeching U-turns.
A Taliban spokesman, Zabiullah Mujahid, claimed responsibility for the attack, saying it was carried out by a team of four "martyrdom-seekers." It was not clear whether the gunfire following the blast came only from police, or whether assailants had been 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 measures and a concerted campaign of strikes against the Haqqani network, a Taliban offshoot group that has carried out other attacks inside Kabul.
Although violence has crept upward during the last two months -- including, most notably, a Jan. 28 attack on a Western-style supermarket in Kabul's diplomatic district that killed at least eight people -- the last previous large-scale strike in the capital was 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 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, was at the center of another strike by insurgents a year ago. That attack, targeting nearby guesthouses, left 16 people dead.
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