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By Yousuf Azimy
KABUL (Reuters) - A large bomb exploded outside the Indian embassy in central Kabul on Thursday, killing 17 people and wounding 76, in the second big attack on the embassy which renewed focus on regional security and Pakistan.
The Taliban, toppled as Afghanistan's rulers in 2001 following a U.S.-led invasion, claimed responsibility for the latest blast.
After an attack on the Indian embassy in the Afghan capital last year killed 58 people, India said Pakistan's military spy agency, the ISI, was behind most attacks on Indians in Afghanistan as a way of undermining Indian influence.
While New Delhi has been not yet pointed any finger of blame, links will inevitably be drawn to Pakistan.
Pakistan has long regarded Afghanistan as a fall-back position in the event of war with India and fears being squeezed between India on its eastern border and a hostile Afghanistan, backed by India, on a western boundary Kabul does not recognise.
New Delhi seeks to retain influence in Afghanistan to deter anti-India militant training camps there it accuses Pakistan of backing and to control any possibility of an Islamic surge in a region with traditional ties to Islamabad.
This year has been the deadliest of the eight-year-old war for foreign troops in the country, and the rise in casualties is contributing to a decline in U.S. public support for the war.
To prevail in the counterinsurgency fight, U.S. General Stanley McChrystal, the top U.S. and NATO commander in Afghanistan, has asked for a minimum 40,000 more troops, two sources told Reuters in Washington.
The sources said McChrystal gave President Barack Obama two other options: sending an even larger number of troops, and the "high-risk" road of sending no additional troops.
Washington is embroiled in a heated debate over whether to boost the size of its force in Afghanistan to try to put down the Taliban insurgency or to scale back the U.S. mission and focus on a more modest goal of striking at al Qaeda cells.
TROUBLE IN KABUL
Thursday's blast tore through a market building across the street from the heavily fortified Indian embassy compound, leaving rubble and debris strewn across the road, where the Afghan Interior Ministry is also located.
India said that all its embassy staff were safe.
Fifteen civilians and two policemen were killed in the attack, the Interior Ministry said. A further 76 people, including 63 civilians and 13 policemen were wounded, it said.
"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 New Delhi.
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 reopened only in the past few weeks. A large concrete blast barrier was erected down the centre of the road.
The Taliban said the attack on the embassy was carried out by a suicide bomber in a sport utility vehicle.
Violence has reached its worst levels of the war as Taliban insurgents have extended fighting to previously secure areas, including Kabul. Attacks in the capital had been rare until the start of last year.
Since 2008 there have been around a dozen major attacks in the city, including raids on the German embassy, the headquarters for the NATO-led force, the Information Ministry and the Justice Ministry buildings, as well as other targets near the U.S. embassy, presidential palace and airport.
The Indian embassy was the scene of the war's deadliest attack on the capital last year. In that attack, a Taliban suicide car bomber killed 58 people, including two senior Indian diplomats, and wounded a further 141.
There are now more than 100,000 Western troops serving in Afghanistan, about two-thirds of them American. The United States has about 65,000 troops in Afghanistan, and that number already is due to increase to 68,000 later this year.
In Washington, Said Jawad, Afghanistan's ambassador to the United States, urged the American public to support the deployment of the additional 40,000 troops, telling Reuters that any less would not do the job.
In addition, the U.N. Security Council extended the mandate of the NATO force in Afghanistan for a further year and called on countries to boost its strength.
(Additional reporting by Sayed Salahuddin and Jonathon Burch, Krittivas Mukherjee in New Delhi and Patricia Zengerle and Sue Pleming in Washington; Writing by Jonathon Burch; Editing by Will Dunham and Jeremy Laurence)