Taliban fighters opened fire, hurled grenades and staged suicide bombings in central Kabul on Friday, killing at least 16 people in defiance of the Western-backed government and a NATO offensive.

An Italian diplomat and Indian government officials were killed in the assault, the governments said.

Also among the dead were eight Afghans, including three police officers, the Afghan Interior Ministry said. The French Foreign Ministry said one French national had been killed and India's foreign ministry said up to nine Indians were killed.

The attack came in the second week of a joint NATO-Afghan offensive against the Taliban in their stronghold in Helmand province, one of the biggest in the eight-year-old war, designed to put the Afghan government fully in control of the country.

Some 38 people were wounded in the two-hour assault which started after at least one suicide bomber blew himself up in front of a guest house frequented by Indians.

I heard a big blast, witness Quaree Sameh told Reuters. The glass shattered. The attackers were throwing grenades and shooting.

The blast triggered car alarms and sent plumes of smoke into the damp, cold morning air at the start of the Afghan weekend.

I was inside my room when I heard a loud explosion and then I could not see if people were killed or wounded because I locked my door, said an Indian who gave his name as Kashif, who was staying in the guest house.

Afghan security forces wearing bullet-proof vests rushed to secure the area, which is home to Kabul's biggest shopping center, exchanging fire with the militants. Others carried out wounded Indians on their backs or stretchers.


Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid claimed responsibility for the attacks on behalf of the Islamist militants.

Our mujahideen (holy warrior) fighters managed to attack in the heart of Kabul city once again, Mujahid told Reuters by telephone from an undisclosed location.

He said at least five Taliban fighters launched the attack. Two suicide bombers detonated explosives-packed vests near the hotel and the City Center shopping mall. Three fighters were in the basement of the shopping center, he said.

The Taliban frequently attack the capital, targeting foreigners and public areas. On January 18, Taliban fighters hit multiple locations in the city including another shopping mall, killing five people and wounding 38.

Afghan President Hamid Karzai condemned the attacks.

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, Karzai said.

The United States, France and Italy condemned the attack.

India said Friday's assault was the third attack on Indian interests or government officials in 20 months.

These are the handiwork of those who are desperate to undermine the friendship between India and Afghanistan, and do not wish to see a strong, democratic and pluralistic Afghanistan, an Indian Foreign Ministry statement said. India supports Karzai and is one of Afghanistan's biggest donors. Its embassy in Kabul has been attacked twice since 2008.

After the first embassy bombing in July 2008, New Delhi said Pakistan's military spy agency, the ISI, was behind most attacks on Indians in Afghanistan to undermine Indian influence.

Pakistan fears being squeezed between India on its eastern border and a hostile Afghanistan, backed by India, on a western boundary Kabul does not recognize.

On Thursday, India and Pakistan resumed high-level talks to reduce tensions, their first since the Mumbai attacks in November 2008. The meeting ended with only an agreement to keep talking.

U.S. and other NATO-led foreign forces have pushed back against the Taliban after violence across Afghanistan last year hit its worst levels since the militants were ousted by U.S.-backed Afghan forces in late 2001.

(Writing by Raju Gopalakrishnan and Bryson Hull; Editing by Nick Macfie)