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Taliban strike at heart of Kabul, killing at least 16

Indians believed to be targets, but Italian secret service officer and French film producer also dead / Militants trying to prove they are still a potent force, even as they are overwhelmed in south by Nato troops

With suicide bombs, grenades and gunfire, insurgents struck at the heart of Kabul yesterday, killing at least 16 people in co-ordinated attacks that the Afghan President said were targeted at Indians, but which also claimed the life of a senior member of the Italian secret service and a French film producer.

The targets of the two-hour explosion of violence included two guesthouses used by foreigners and Kabul's first shopping mall. The Taliban boasted that five of its shaheeds, or martyrs, mounted the assault, which started at about 6:30 in the morning when at least one suicide bomber detonated his explosives at a guesthouse frequented by Indian medics. "Our mujaheddin fighters managed to attack in the heart of the Kabul city once again," said a Taliban spokesman, Zabihullah Mujahid.

The violence in the Afghan capital, which left nearly 40 people wounded, marked the end of the second week of Operation Moshtarak, with thousands of US, British and Afghan forces trying to rout the Taliban in their stronghold in Helmand province in the south.

Faced with overwhelming Western firepower, the insurgents have largely chosen not to fight in much of the southern battlefront (although US Marines and Afghan troops have been killed). Yesterday's attack in Kabul was seen as an attempt by the Taliban to shift the battlefront elsewhere and show that they still remain a potent force.

Delhi said six Indians were killed in what Foreign Minister SM Krishna called "barbaric attacks ... the handiwork of those who are desperate to undermine the friendship between India and Afghanistan". President Karzai said: "This was a terrorist attack against Indian citizens. Those who are involved and carried out inhumane and un- Islamic attacks on a holy day that is the birthday of the Prophet Mohammad are certainly enemies of Islam and Afghanistan."

The insurgents appeared to have targeted the Hamid Guesthouse, which was flattened by a blast, and the nearby Park Residence. They also attempted to get into the Safi Landmark Hotel then took refuge in the basement of the shopping mall.

Surbod Sanjiv Patil, a doctor from India working in a Kabul hospital, said: "We are here offering help and the attack took place in our residential complex, it was no secret that there were Indians living there. I hid in a bathroom at the hotel for three hours when the bombings started. When I was coming out, I found two or three dead bodies." The Indian embassy in Kabul had previously been hit twice by suicide bombers, attacks the government in Delhi has claimed were orc hestrated by the ISI, the Pakistani secret police, which has links with the Taliban and other Islamist groups.

India is one of the biggest aid donors to Afghanistan, and its influence has led to resentment by some in Pakistani politics and military. Talks over Kashmir, that broke off following the Mumbai terror attacks in November 2008, finally restarted this week, and diplomats said that yesterday's bombings may have been designed to trigger another collapse in negotiations.

The Frenchman killed was identified as film maker Severin Blanchet, who had trained young Afghans on documentary film making since 2006, the French Foreign Ministry said. The Italian leader Silvio Berlusconi paid tribute to his slain countryman, Pietro Colazzo, inset, left, describing him as "a faithful servant of the state, who died doing his job in a country tormented by horrific terrorist acts".

Government officials said Mr Colazzo was a diplomatic adviser to the Prime Minister's office, and the Italian news agency Ansa, said he was the Kabul bureau number two in Italy's foreign intelligence agency, AISE.

Police commander General Abdul Rahman praised Mr Colazzo, saying he died a hero, relaying information about the location of the suicide bombers to officers that helped to save lives, before he was shot dead. "He was killed by the terrorists who realised that he was passing information to police forces," General Rahman said. "He was in a room right behind the attackers and he could see where they were and what they are doing. He was a brave man. He gave us precious information that allowed police to evacuate safely four other Italians."

There have now been seven attacks in the capital in the past six months. The UN pulled most of its senior staff from Afghanistan after nine people were killed in a suicide assault on one of their guesthouses, and other foreign organisations have also begun to scale back their presence.

News of the yesterday's killings immediately led to calls in Rome for the country to withdraw its 3,150 troops from Afghanistan. Senator Francesco Pancho Pardi, of the centre-left Italia dei Valori party said: "Today is a day of mourning and condolences for the victims' families. Tomorrow we must start work on an exit strategy out of Afghanistan as soon as possible."

Pressure on Nato allies supplying troops has already claimed one government. The Dutch ruling coalition collapsed last weekend over a plan to keep the Netherlands' 2,000-strong contingent from going home this year.

Yesterday, Angela Merkel endured a heated debate in the Bundestag, which was disrupted by an anti-war protest. But the German Chancellor won overwhelming parliamentary backing for her plans to send as many as 850 more troops to Afghanistan, increasing the maximum number to 5,350.