A suicide car bomber killed at least 16 people, including six Italian soldiers, in an attack on a military convoy on a road in the centre of Kabul today, the worst strike suffered by Italians in Afghanistan.
The attack caused shock in Italy at a time when European leaders have been scrambling to reassure people sceptical of their countries' roles in an eight-year-old war that has reached its most violent phase.
Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi said his government was "close to the families of the victims, sharing their pain in this tragic moment, and expresses its solidarity to all the members of the Italian mission in Afghanistan who are working to uphold democracy and freedom in that unfortunate country".
The Taliban claimed responsibility for the attack in a text message sent from a telephone number used by a Taliban spokesman.
Afghan Defence Ministry spokesman Zaher Azimy said 10 Afghan civilians were killed and 52 wounded.
At the scene, Afghan troops ferried wounded civilians to ambulances near several wrecked Italian military vehicles.
The body of at least one dead Italian soldier could be seen lying in the street in front of an armoured truck that bore an Italian flag. Other body parts were scattered near the scene. The chassis of an exploded car had landed dozens of yards away.
"I was shopping when I heard a deafening explosion," said witness Shah Mohammad, an elderly man at the site of the blast.
Italy's parliament held a minute's silence in honour of the victims but political debate over the mission quickly resumed.
Most of the conservative government and the main centre-left opposition broadly support the Afghan mission. Interior Minister Roberto Maroni said pulling out Italian troops "would mean surrendering to the logic of terrorism".
The far left restated demands for an immediate withdrawal.
"The Italian military contingent's presence in Afghanistan is the fruit of a mistaken policy and strategy," said Italian communist leader Paolo Ferrero.
Pope Benedict expressed his "prayers for the victims and solidarity with their families", a Vatican spokesman said.
Public support for the war, which has declined sharply in recent months in Britain and Germany, could suffer. Italians quickly turned against the war in Iraq when 19 troops were killed in an attack there in 2003.
There are now more than 100,000 Western troops in Afghanistan, two thirds of them Americans after President Barack Obama expanded the U.S. contingent this year.
The roughly 2,400 Italian troops have been kept out of the main combat zones in the south and east, although violence has increased in the western areas where most Italians are based.
In Brussels, NATO spokesman James Appathurai said he expected Italy would stay the course.
"We have no fears that this attack will trigger an Italian withdrawal from this mission," he said.
The attack took place on a road between the U.S. embassy and the airport, a short distance from the diplomatic enclave housing many Western missions, including the U.S. and British embassies.
Attacks in Kabul itself are relatively rare, but several have taken place in the past two months.
Last week, a Taliban suicide bomber blew up a car outside the main gate of a military base used by NATO troops inside Kabul's only airport. In August, a suicide car bomber struck outside the main NATO headquarters in the diplomatic district in the capital.