- Associated Press - Friday, January 28, 2011

KABUL, Afghanistan (AP) — A suicide bomber killed eight people, including five foreigners, inside a high-end grocery store on Friday in the heart of a heavily guarded district that’s home to many diplomats and Westerners.

Initial reports that there were two Americans among those killed were premature, said Caitlin Hayden, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Embassy in Kabul. She said the U.S. was working with its Afghan partners to confirm whether any Americans were killed but no Americans had been identified as of late Friday.

The Taliban claimed responsibility for what it called an attack targeting an employee of the U.S. security contractor formerly known as Blackwater in a district long seen one of the safest in the city.

In recent weeks the government has started taking down some of the fortifications in the district, including blast walls and dirt-filled barriers protecting places frequented by foreigners or erected around homes.

A man and four women from outside Afghanistan died in the blast, said Mohammad Zahir, the chief of criminal investigation for the Kabul police. The other three victims included an Afghan child. Fifteen other people were wounded.

The identities of the victims were not immediately released by either foreign or Afghan officials.

Ahmad Zaki, another criminal investigator, said the suicide bomber threw at least one grenade and fired shots, prompting customers to run to another area of the store, known as Finest.

“Then he blew himself up,” Mr. Zaki said.

The explosion ignited a small fire in the frozen food section and filled the main floor of the two-story store with smoke.

“To my left, I heard a gunshot. A bomb went off. Everyone was running to the back of the building,” said Mary Hayden, a Western consultant who was inside the story.

Afghan President Hamid Karzai said the “enemies of Afghanistan are so desperate that they are now killing civilians, including women, inside a food market.”

The U.S. Embassy in Kabul condemned what it described as a “senseless act.”

“By attacking a peaceful place of commerce, insurgents have once again demonstrated their lack of respect for the safety of the Afghan people,” the embassy said.

In a text message sent to reporters, Taliban spokesman Zabiullah Mujahid wrote: “It was an attack on the chief of Blackwater.”

Blackwater Worldwide, which is based in North Carolina and is now called Xe Services, is one of many private security companies that are disliked by many Afghans because they appear to operate with impunity. Mr. Karzai, who has moved to ban many of the guns-for-hire, has complained for years that many private guards commit human rights abuses, pay protection money to the Taliban and undercut the country’s national security forces by offering higher wages and better living conditions.

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