KABUL, Afghanistan - Three suicide attackers killed at least nine civilians, most of them children, in a botched attack Saturday on the Indian consulate in an eastern Afghan city near the border with Pakistan, security officials said.
Authorities also reported that 22 police officers and over 70 Taliban fighters died in two days of fighting earlier in the week in the same province touched off by a feud between militants and villagers. Officials regularly announce high militant death tolls that are impossible to independently confirm.
Militants, mostly smaller groups based in Pakistan, have targeted Indian diplomatic interests multiple times in recent years.
In the latest attack, police fired on the militants as they approached a checkpoint outside the consulate in Jalalabad, prompting one of them to set off their explosives-laden car, said Masum Khan Hashimi, the deputy police chief of Nangarhar province.
The blast killed nine bystanders, and wounded another 24 people including a policeman. Six of the dead and three of the wounded were children, said Jalalabad hospital director Dr. Humayun Zahir. He did not give their specific ages.
All three attackers also died, although it was not clear how many were killed by police fire and how many by the explosion.
In New Delhi, India's External Affairs Ministry spokesman Syed Akbaruddin said that all Indian officials in the consulate were safe.
Afghanistan's main insurgent group, the Taliban, denied in a text message that it had carried out the attack.
Militant groups known for attacking Indian interests include Lashkar-e-Taiba, blamed for the 2008 attack on the Indian city of Mumbai that killed 166 people. LeT has been active in Afghanistan in recent years, often teaming up with insurgent groups operating in the eastern part of the country near the frontier with Pakistan. Last year the U.S.-led military coalition arrested a senior LeT leader in eastern Afghanistan.
India has been frustrated by Pakistan's failure to crack down on Lashkar-e-Taiba, which has strong historical links with Pakistani intelligence. Pakistan has always viewed India as a potential rival in Afghanistan, which it considers its strategic backyard.
"Such coward attacks will not deter India from providing reconstruction and developmental assistance to our true friend, Afghanistan," the Indian Embassy Tweeted in reaction to the consulate bombing.
Hashimi said the Jalalabad attack began when three men in a car approached the checkpoint. Two of the men got out of the car wearing vests rigged with explosives and a police guard immediately opened fire on them, Hashimi said. He added that the third man then detonated a large bomb located inside the car.
In 2010, two Kabul guest houses popular among Indians were attacked, killing more than six Indians. India blamed that attack on LeT.
The Indian Embassy was bombed in 2008 and again in 2009, leaving 75 people dead in the two attacks.
The attack came as the U.S. planned to close its embassies in the Muslim world for the weekend due to an al-Qaida threat.
In other violence in the same province, 22 police officers and 76 Taliban were killed in the Sherzad district of Nangarhar in two days of battles with insurgents that broke out when militants shot a tribal elder, officials and police said.
The militant death toll could not be checked independently, but four separate officials confirmed the police death toll.
Fighting has intensified in eastern and southern parts of Afghanistan in recent months, especially since the mid-June handover of security responsibilities from the U.S.-led international military coalition to the Afghan national security forces. The Taliban have been fighting to regain ground they lost in the past three years to foreign forces, and violence is expected to spike again after the end of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan.
So far this year, a total of 613 Afghan and 470 Afghan soldiers have been killed in fighting.
The battles in the Sherzad district began on Wednesday when Taliban fighters shot and killed a tribal elder for allegedly cooperating with the government of President Hamid Karzai, sparking retaliation from the family and other villagers, residents said.
According to Ahmad Mushtaq, a villager, that initial gun battle resulted in the deaths of a number of Taliban. The militants retaliated by kidnapping 12 members of a family, who were rescued when Afghan police rushed to the scene and, backed by reinforcements from Jalalabad, mounted a rescue operation.
A number of Taliban again were killed and wounded during this rescue operation, Sherzad district chief Shukrullah Durani said. But when the reinforcements were on their way back to Jalalabad they were attacked by big number of Taliban.
The Taliban, who numbered about two hundred, were fleeing an Afghan army operation in a neighboring province when they ran into the police convoy on Thursday.
In a battle which lasted hours, 22 police officers were killed along with scores of Taliban fighters, Durani and three other officials said. The three spoke anonymously as they were not authorized to talk to the media.
Durani said the police requested air support from NATO, but none came. "This is why 22 police... were killed," he said. "If we had received air support we would not have lost such a big number of police and at the same time all Taliban in the area would have been killed and would not have escaped this time."
It was unclear why the police did not receive air support. Coalition forces do provide such assistance when requested and if the fighting is not in an inhabited area.
Associated Press writer Amir Shah contributed from Kabul.