JALALABAD, Afghanistan / Nangarhar (AFP) - Suicide bombers targeted the Indian consulate in the eastern Afghan city of Jalalabad on Saturday, detonating an explosives-packed car and killing nine civilians, including seven children in a nearby mosque.
A spokesman for the Taleban militant group immediately denied responsibility for the blast that erupted outside the Indian mission and left the mosque, private houses, tailors and other shops in ruins.
"A car containing explosives hit a barrier near the consulate and detonated," Ahmadzia Abdulzai, spokesman for Nangarhar province, of which Jalalabad is the capital, told AFP.
"There were three suicide bombers in the car." Nangarhar police chief Sharif Amin confirmed that the consulate was the intended target of the attack, which created a large crater in the road as survivors wearing blood-stained clothing ran for cover.
"Among the civilians killed were seven children inside the mosque," Amin said.
The interior ministry condemned the bombing as "heinous" and said nine people had died in total, with 21 other civilians wounded, while the United States denounced it in the "strongest terms".
Syed Akbaruddin, a spokesman for the Indian foreign ministry in New Delhi, said that no officials were injured in the attack - the first major strike in Afghanistan during the holy month of Ramadan that started on July 10.
India, which has spent more than two billion dollars of aid in Afghanistan since the Taleban regime fell in 2001, has previously been targeted in the war-torn country.
In 2008, a car bomb at the Indian embassy in Kabul killed 60 people and the embassy was again hit by a suicide strike in 2009. In 2010, two guesthouses in Kabul used by Indians were attacked.
India has been a key supporter of Kabul's post-Taleban government, and analysts have often pointed to the threat of a "proxy war" in Afghanistan between India and its arch-rival Pakistan.
India reacted to the consulate attack with thinly-veiled criticism of neighbouring Pakistan for failing to crack down on Pakistan-based militants and their safe havens.
"This attack has once again highlighted the main threat to Afghanistan's security and stability stems from terrorism and the terror machine that continues to operate from beyond its borders," the Delhi government said.
Pakistan, which is widely seen as covertly supporting the Taleban, denies supporting militants active in Afghanistan and points to its own bloody fight against Islamist extremists.
Taleban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid told AFP that their fighters were not involved in Saturday's strike. "We do not claim the responsibility for this attack," he said.
The hardline Taleban have led a 12-year insurgency against the Afghan government since being overthrown in a US-led invasion for harbouring Al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden in 2001.
But Afghanistan is beset by a myriad of armed groups ranging from Islamist rebels to criminal gangs and militias formed during the Soviet occupation in the 1980s and the 1992-1996 civil war.
The Haqqani network, a Pakistan-based group allied with the Taleban and closely associated with the Pakistani intelligence service, was blamed for earlier attacks on Indian targets in Afghanistan.
Jalalabad city is situated on the key route from the Pakistani border region - where many militants are based - to Kabul, and it has been the location of repeated assaults in recent years.
The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) compound in the city was hit on May 29, with the Taleban rebels also denying any involvement.
One Afghan guard died in that attack, which triggered widespread outrage as the ICRC is one of the most respected aid groups in Afghanistan and has remained strictly neutral during the war.
In March, seven suicide bombers attacked a police base in Jalalabad, killing five officers.
The previous month, a bomber rammed an explosives-laden car into the gates of the National Directorate of Security spy agency and detonated bombs, killing two intelligence workers.
Nangarhar province has seen heavy fighting over recent days with more than 20 Afghan policemen and dozens of Taleban insurgents killed when hundreds of fighters ambushed a police and military convoy on Friday.
The US State Department said it was closing at least 22 US embassies or consulates on Sunday, a work day in many Islamic countries, due to security threats.