KABUL, Afghanistan (AP) _ In the most brazen attack yet on Kabul's heavily guarded center, a car bomber rammed into an American Humvee outside the U.S. Embassy on Friday, killing 16 other people, including two U.S. soldiers. It was the Afghan capital's deadliest suicide attack since the 2001 toppling of the Taliban.
A purported Taliban spokesman, Qari Yousaf Ahmadi, claimed responsibility for the attack, according to the privately run Pajhwok Afghan News Agency. Ahmadi's exact ties to the Taliban leadership are unclear.
The morning blast spewed body parts and pieces of U.S. military uniforms across a major road and into trees that were set ablaze by the explosion _ part of the worst spate of violence in Afghanistan since the collapse of the hard-line Islamic regime.
The attack shattered what had been a typically peaceful Muslim sabbath in the war-ravaged capital and revealed the lingering vulnerability of foreign troops, local forces and Afghan civilians to terrorist attacks almost five years after a pro-American government was installed. Attacks in central Kabul have been rare in comparison to areas on the edge of the city and in the country's south.
Some 20,000 NATO soldiers and a similar number of U.S. forces are trying to crush the emboldened Taliban insurgency, mainly in southern Afghanistan. Taliban holdouts have been turning to Iraqi-style tactics _ including increasing numbers of suicide bombings _ to try derail the government of President Hamid Karzai.
In a statement, the Afghan president said ``today's heinous act of terrorism is against the values of Islam and humanity.''
The attack in Kabul took place as many Afghans were commemorating the assassination of anti-Taliban commander Ahmad Shah Massood, who was killed in an al-Qaida suicide bombing two days before the Sept. 11 attacks in the United States.
Friday's explosion went off at 10:20 a.m. just 150 feet from the landmark Massood Square, which leads to the main gate of the heavily fortified American Embassy compound. It tore a 6-foot-wide crater into the road and left body parts, Muslim prayer caps, floppy khaki-colored military hats and shoes scattered over a wide area.
Najibullah Faizi, 25, saw a blue Toyota Corolla driven by a young, heavyset man speed past another car on the inside lane before slamming into one of two U.S. Humvees in a convoy.
``I fell to the ground after the blast. American soldiers started shooting at another car nearby. There was smoke and flames everywhere,'' Faizi said.
The blast sent a plume of brown smoke spiraling hundreds of feet into the sky and tore apart one of the Humvees, blowing it onto what had been its roof and turning it into twisted, flaming hulk of metal.
All that remained of the bomb-packed car was its front end, which was covered in flames some 60 feet away. A foot and ankle _ apparently the attacker's _ was thrown 100 feet farther.
Angry residents condemned the bombing and demanded militants end attacks in heavily populated areas.
``This is a cowardly action that terrorists always take. They don't care if it is a residential area, government area or military area,'' said resident Mohammed Hayder Nangahari.
Pharmacist Nawid Paidar, 31, said the killing of children, men and women in terrorist attacks was inhumane and he blamed militants crossing from Pakistan for the latest bombing.
``The Americans should execute those who organize terrorist attacks as a lesson to others,'' Paidar said as he removed pieces of wood and other debris from his damaged storefront.
Pakistani President Gen. Pervez Musharraf visited Kabul this week for talks with Karzai. The leaders, both key allies of U.S. forces hunting Osama bin Laden along their vast, tribal-dominated frontier, vowed to improve cooperation to defeat the ``common enemy'' of terrorism.
The blast's force shattered every window in a five-story, Soviet-era apartment block facing the bomb scene, spraying shards of glass over children eating their breakfasts and women cleaning their cramped homes. Restaurants and businesses on the other side of the road also had windows and doors blown in.
An Associated Press reporter saw the bodies of two American soldiers lying near their burning vehicle. U.S. troops stood guard around the bodies, one of which was slumped in the gutter, the other covered by a plastic sheet. The U.S. military initially said two other soldiers were also wounded, but later revised it down to one.
Sixteen people in all were killed and 29 wounded, said Ali Shah Paktiawal, criminal director of the Kabul police. The bomber also died.
Among the victims was Bibi Omayra, in her 70s, who had been sitting with her granddaughter in a small yard outside the apartment building when the car bomb exploded, spraying shrapnel over a 150-foot radius.
``My mother just went to the park for some fresh air with my daughter when the explosion happened,'' said the woman's son, Farid Wahidi, 40. ``Shrapnel hit her in the chest and killed her.''
Top U.S. operational commander Maj. Gen. Benjamin Freakley condemned the latest killings of American troops ``by these Taliban extremists who care nothing about human decency or life.''
Karzai, in an interview with Time magazine, acknowledged his government has enemies.
``The same enemies that blew up themselves in London, the same enemies that blew up the train in Madrid or the train in Bombay or the twin towers in America are still around,'' he said. ``Before September 11 they were the government in Afghanistan. Today they are on the run and hiding and they come out from their hiding and try to hurt us when they can manage it.''
American and NATO troops are fighting the Taliban primarily across vast desert plains in southern Helmand and Kandahar provinces, also center of the country's massive opium trade.
``The fighting is extraordinarily intense. The intensity and ferocity of the fighting is far greater than in Iraq on a daily basis,'' Brig. Ed Butler, the commander of British Forces in Afghanistan, told British ITV news.
He echoed NATO commander Gen. James L. Jones' call Thursday for at least 2,000 more troops. Jones, who said the next few weeks would be decisive in the fight against militants, is in Poland pressing officials from the 26 NATO member states for more soldiers and air support.
NATO troops killed 20 to 30 Taliban in airstrikes and artillery barrages in Kandahar province's Panjwayi district Friday during an anti-Taliban operation called Operation Medusa, said alliance spokesman Lt. Col. Nick Grant-Thorold.
The latest deaths raise the insurgents' death toll to at least 290 since the operation began Sept. 2, according to NATO.