KABUL (Reuters) - A suicide attack on a supermarket in Kabul's upmarket embassy district on Friday killed at least nine people, three of them foreign women, in the first major Taliban assault on civilians in the capital for nearly a year.
A child was also among the dead from Friday's bombing, which shattered a sense of relative calm that had settled over the capital after nearly a year without an attack targeting foreign or Afghan civilians.
Gunfire rattled through the area -- home to the British, Canadian, Pakistani and other missions -- at the start of the assault, which one witness told police was launched by a man in his forties, with dark skin and a long beard.
Bodies were carried from the blackened hull of the "Finest" supermarket, popular with foreigners and several hundred yards (metres) from the British embassy, as fires broke out among shattered shelves and scattered food. The wounded were led away wailing.
President Hamid Karzai condemned the attack as un-Islamic, and put the toll at nine, one higher than police, who said six people were wounded. They declined to give the victims' nationalities.
The Taliban said they had carried out the attack. It was aimed at foreigners but the primary target was the head of security firm Xe Services, formerly known as Blackwater, spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid told Reuters by telephone.
Police said there were no security employees among the dead.
"We claim responsibility for the attack. It was carried out at a time when foreigners were shopping, including the head of a security company," Mujahid said.
Phone card salesman Mehrab Gol, one of a group who cluster on a roundabout outside the shop, said the attacker was well armed.
"The suicide bomber fired first and then threw a grenade and then he blew himself up. There were three explosions," he said.
"Then there was chaos inside and people were running away...There were many wounded but there was nobody there to carry them away."
The shop's main entrance and side entrance doors had been blown out. Shattered glass lay strewn across the roundabout in front of the shop, and there was dried blood on the pavement.
Afghan police and soldiers had cordoned off the area and NATO forensic experts were seen entering the supermarket.
But in a reminder of how Kabul's residents have become inured to routine violence, a baker three doors down was still making bread and another supermarket frequented by foreigners, barely 100 metres away, was open for business.
The capital, home to Afghanistan's security forces and newly surrounded by a "ring of steel" police cordon, had seemed exempt until recently from the tide of violence rising elsewhere.
Friday's bombing was the first major attack on civilians since two suicide bombers detonated explosives near the city's biggest shopping centre last February, killing at least 14.
However, there have been several attacks on both foreign and Afghan security forces since then, and the supermarket assault was the latest sign that the lull was temporary.
In a war strategy review last month, U.S. President Barack Obama said "notable operational gains" had been made and the Taliban's momentum arrested in much of the country and reversed in some areas but that gains were fragile and reversible.
Those findings were echoed by the commander of U.S. and NATO forces, General David Petraeus, when he issued an upbeat assessment of 2010 to foreign troops on Wednesday.
Many critics dispute those assessments, saying insurgent attacks are at their highest in the nearly-decade long war.