ISLAMABAD — The Taliban has claimed responsibility for an attack on a Lebanese restaurant popular with foreigners that killed 21 people in Kabul's Wazir Akbar Khan district Friday evening.
Police say a suicide bomber blew himself up outside the restaurant, and that two gunmen then stormed the establishment spraying diners with bullets, killing 13 foreigners, including a top envoy of the International Monetary Fund for Afghanistan, the senior United Nations political affairs officer and two other U.N. staffers, and two Americans with the American University in Afghanistan.
The gunmen were killed by police.
The attack is seen as a critical blow to Afghan peace and reconciliation efforts, and it has raised serious concerns ahead of the security transition that is due to begin in Afghanistan in April.
Authorities in Kabul say that investigations are under way to determine circumstances that led to what is being condemned as the deadliest assault on foreign civilians in Afghanistan since the start of U.S.-led military campaign in 2001.
Addressing a gathering of provincial police chiefs in Kabul on Saturday, Interior Minister Mohammad Omar Daudzai, who oversees Afghan police forces, said he has suspended the commander and intelligence officer in charge of the district and placed both of them under investigation.
"The aim of attacks against civilian locations like the restaurant is to isolate Afghanistan by discouraging foreigners from visiting and living in the country and forcing educated Afghan youth to flee abroad," he said, describing an enemy that wants to push Afghanistan back to a previous century.
“Afghanistan has completely changed and the youth this time is not ready to flee," he said.
Claiming responsibility for the attack, Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid told VOA that penetration of its fighters into such a heavily-guarded part of Kabul demonstrates that the group is capable of regaining control of the country after withdrawal of foreign troops.
If the Taliban “can have access and transport fighters to what [Afghan authorities] dub a Red Line area where senior officials of invading countries reside, it shows the Taliban has the capability to retake our country,” he said.
Friday’s attack targeted a place “where invaders used to dine with booze and liquor in the plenty,” he said, adding that it was planned to avenge a coalition airstrike earlier in the week against insurgents in the eastern Parwan province that killed “many Afghan civilians.”
Afghan authorities say the offensive that reportedly involved U.S. air support killed a number of Taliban fighters, including a senior insurgent leader.
Interior Minister Daudzai says any attack that kills local and foreign civilians shows insurgents are not willing to come to the negotiating table and are determined to continue their violent campaign.
Abdul Hakim Mujahid, a senior member of Afghanistan’s High Peace Council, says only peace talks can end to the Afghan conflict, telling VOA that civilians are dying not only in Taliban attacks but in military operations undertaken by Afghan and foreign troops.
“These kinds of incidents may happen again and again, but it tells us that we have to go for a political settlement and we have to prevent all the military operations in Afghanistan," he said. "We have to create trust and confidence among different segments, different elements of the crisis.”
Formed in 2010 by President Hamid Karzai, the High Peace Council, which comprises influential Afghans, was devised in a bid to engage Taliban members in peace and political reconciliation efforts, though it has made no headway.
The latest Taliban violence has increased security fears ahead of the historic presidential election in April, because insurgents have rejected the polls as a “U.S.-staged drama” to legitimize its "occupation of Afghanistan."
Moreover, NATO-led international forces are due to end their combat mission in Afghanistan by the end of this year and the United States wants to retain a much smaller military presence in the country past 2014. The residual American force is meant to help nascent Afghan security forces prevent the Taliban from staging a comeback.
However, President Karzai has refused to sign a bilateral security agreement with the Obama administration to allow for the proposed American force to stay in Afghanistan.
The United States has warned it will be forced to completely withdraw forces from the country if the security pact is not in place soon. The standoff between Kabul and Washington has fueled uncertainty about future stability and security in Afghanistan.
The White House on Saturday condemned the attack as one with "no possible justification," describing victims as "innocent civilians ... working every day to help the Afghan people achieve a better future."
The U.S. State Department issued a message saying the U.S. remains committed to peace and reconciliation efforts in Afghanistan.
U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon extended his condolences to the families of the U.N. staffers killed, calling the attack "another sad moment for the United Nations ... and a violation of international humanitarian law."
The U.N. Security Council stressed the need to bring the "perpetrators, organizers, financiers and sponsors of these reprehensible acts of terrorism to justice."
A number of embassies and foreign organizations have offices in the area of the attack, and many Afghan officials live nearby.
A January 4 Taliban attack at the gateway to a large NATO base in central Kabul did not inflict any casualties. The same day, a suicide bomber struck a coalition base in Nangahar province, killing one NATO soldier. Five militants were killed trying to storm the base after the attack.