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By Yousuf Azimy
KABUL (Reuters) - A large bomb exploded outside the Indian embassy in central Kabul on Thursday, killing 12 people and wounding 83, officials said, in the second big attack on the mission in 15 months.
The blast tore through a market building across the street from the heavily fortified embassy compound, leaving rubble and debris strewn across the road, where the Afghan Interior Ministry is also located.
The Taliban claimed responsibility for the attack. Violence has reached its worst levels of the eight-year war with Taliban insurgents spreading their attacks to previously secure areas.
Since the start of last year, militants in the capital have targeted the German embassy, the headquarters for the NATO-led force, the Information Ministry and the Justice Ministry buildings, the airport and a luxury hotel near the presidential palace.
India said its embassy had been the target of Thursday's attack but that all its staff were safe.
In July last year, the embassy was the scene of the war's deadliest attack on the capital. Then a Taliban suicide car bomber killed 58 people, including two senior Indian diplomats, and wounded a further 141.
"I believe the suicide bomb was directed against the embassy because the suicide bomber came up to the outside perimeter wall of the embassy with a car loaded with explosives obviously with the aim of targeting the embassy," Indian Foreign Secretary Nirupama Rao told reporters in India.
Rao said the blast was similar in size to the 2008 attack but that measures taken since then to secure the embassy had worked effectively in protecting its embassy staff.
The road, which is also home to the Interior Ministry and the Indonesian embassy, had been closed to traffic since the 2008 attack and was only reopened in the last few weeks. A large concrete blast barrier was erected down the centre of the road.
Indian authorities blamed the Pakistani intelligence service for last year's blast.
Eleven civilians and one policeman were killed in Thursday's blast.
Mohammad Osman Shapor, a government employee was on his way to work when he was wounded by the blast. "I was on my way to work. Suddenly, I heard a bang near the Interior Ministry. The explosion threw me off my bicycle and I was unconscious," Shapor said from a hospital bed in central Kabul.
As mounting violence grips the country, U.S. President Barack Obama is considering whether to send up to 40,000 more troops to Afghanistan as requested by his top commander there, General Stanley McChrystal.
On Wednesday, the Pentagon confirmed Obama had received McChrystal's request for more troops, moving him a step closer to a long-awaited decision on a new military build-up.
It was unclear how long the president would take to act on the troop request but pressure has been mounting on Obama for weeks to make a swift decision.
There are now more than 100,000 Western troops serving in Afghanistan, two-thirds of them American. This year has been the deadliest for foreign troops in the country and the rise in casualties is eroding public support for the war.
The Taliban have made a comeback in recent years and appear to be gaining in strength. On Wednesday, the militants claimed to have hoisted their flag in a remote district in the east of the country, where days earlier they had inflicted the deadliest battlefield casualties on U.S. troops in more than a year.
Hundreds of militants stormed two remote outposts in eastern Nuristan province on Saturday, killing eight U.S. and two Afghan troops. U.S. forces said they still had troops in the area and were conducting normal operations. They said they killed more than 100 fighters in the ensuing 13-hour battle.
A spokesman for the U.S. military said they planned to withdraw troops from the area in plans announced before the attack. The plans are part of McChrystal's new strategy to concentrate troops in more populated areas.
(Additional reporting by Sayed Salahuddin and Jonathon Burch, Krittivas Mukherjee in NEW DELHI and Phil Stewart and Adam Entous in WASHINGTON; Writing by Jonathon Burch; Editing by Jeremy Laurence)