Twenty-one people, including two U.S. citizens, were killed Friday in a suicide bomb attack on a Kabul restaurant popular with foreigners and affluent Afghans.
The Taliban claimed responsibility for the attack outside the Lebanese restaurant Taverna. The group has stepped up a campaign of violence in recent months after foreign forces handed over control of security operations to Afghan authorities ahead of their full withdrawal by the end of 2014.
The Taliban said the suicide attack was retaliation for an Afghan military operation earlier in the week in eastern Parwan province, which the group claimed killed many civilians.
"The target of the attack was a restaurant frequented by high ranking foreigners," Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid said in an emailed statement to The Associated Press. He said the attack targeted a place "where the invaders used to dine with booze and liquor in the plenty."
U.S. Ambassador to Afghanistan James Cunningham on Saturday condemned the attack and offered condolences to the families of the victims.
"The U.S. Embassy strongly condemns the terrorist attack in Kabul on January 17 against Afghans and those who are here to help them," he said in a statement.
The head of the International Monetary Fund in Afghanistan, three United Nations staff and a member of the European Police Mission were among the dead. In all, those killed included 13 foreigners and eight Afghans. Police say a suicide bomber and two gunmen were also killed in the attack.
Kabul police chief Gen. Mohammad Zahir Zahir said the victims included two Britons, two Canadians, a Dane, a Russian, two Lebanese, a Somali-American and a Pakistani. At least four people were wounded and about eight Afghans, mostly the kitchen staff, survived.
"We escaped to the neighbor's house through the roof," said Ahmad Fawad, a cook at the restaurant. "There were around eight or nine of us, hiding ourselves there. All the guests who were eating dinner were killed including our manager and the other cook."
The attack took place in the Wazir Akbar Khan district, which hosts many embassies and restaurants catering to expatriates and was carried out around dinnertime in the heavily fortified district, where many wealthy Afghans also live.
"Such targeted attacks against civilians are completely unacceptable and are in flagrant breach of international humanitarian law. They must stop immediately,'' a U.N. spokesperson on Friday.
Gunfire continued for about 20 minutes after the initial blast, and the main road leading to the area was cordoned off.
The Afghan capital has often been hit by suicide and other bomb attacks, with the most recent incident last Sunday when a Taliban suicide bomber riding a bicycle detonated himself next to a police bus, killing a policeman and a civilian.
Foreign forces are preparing to leave Afghanistan at the end of 2014, and President Hamid Karzai is deliberating whether to allow some U.S. troops to stay to help maintain stability after many years of war.
Karzai's refusal thus far to sign a security pact, known as the Bilateral Security Agreement, has strained relations between the two countries. U.S. officials have said that unless a deal is reached to keep about 8,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan, the Taliban could stage a major comeback and that Al-Qaeda could regain safe havens.
The deal must be signed for the U.S. and its allies to provide billions more dollars in aid.
Afghanistan's fledgling security forces face a difficult year ahead as insurgents attempt to disrupt elections on April 5 that will determin a successor to Karzai.
Without a deal, the U.S. could pull out all troops — the so-called zero option — leaving Afghan forces to battle the Taliban on their own.
Al Jazeera and wire services