The first blast occurred at about 06:45 local time, near the Kabul City Centre, Kabul's largest shopping centre located in the city's main commercial district, that includes the Safi Landmark Hotel.

That was followed by two smaller explosions.

"I saw foreigners crying and shouting ... It was a very bad situation inside"

Najibullah, hotel worker

Sporadic gunfire was heard in the area as ambulances raced to the scene and grey smoke billowed into the air.

Police say at least two police officers were among those killed in the blasts.

The Reuters news agency quoted Zabiullah Mujahid, a Taliban spokesman, as saying "holy warriors" had "managed to attack in the heart of Kabul city once again".

He said at least five Taliban fighters launched the attack, including two suicide bombers who detonated explosives-packed vests near the hotel and a shopping mall, Reuters reported.

'Crying and shouting'

Witnesses said people in pyjamas were led from the Park Resident hotel and taken away in ambulances.

Friday's attack came as US, Afghan and Nato forces push ahead with Operation Moshtarak

Najibullah, a 25-year-old hotel worker, said he ran out of the hotel when he heard the first explosion. He said he saw two suicide bombers on the site.

"I saw foreigners were crying and shouting," he said.

"It was a very bad situation inside. God helped me; otherwise I would be dead. I saw one suicide bomber blowing himself up on the first floor of the hotel."

The Park Residence was previously attacked in mid-2005, when a suicide bomber struck the hotel's internet cafe.

Dr Subodh Sanjivpaul told The Associated Press news agency that he was trapped in his bathroom for three hours inside one of the small hotels where he lived with other Indian doctors.

"Today's suicide attack took place in our residential complex," he said as his wounded foot was bandaged.

"When I was coming out, I found two or three dead bodies. When firing was going on, the first car bomb exploded and the full roof came on my head."

Indians 'targeted'

Hamid Karzai, the Afghan president, called Friday's assault a "terrorist attack against Indian citizens", who were working to help rebuild Afghanistan.

In depth

  Operation Moshtarak at a glance
  Gallery: Operation Moshtarak
  Video: Interview with US commander in Helmand
  Video: Taliban fighter says Nato losing Afghan support
  Video: Civilians flee Marjah fighting
  Focus: To win over Afghans, US must listen
  Timeline: Afghanistan in crisis

SM Krishna, India's foreign minister, described the attacks as "barbaric" and a matter of "deep concern".

"These are the handiwork of those who are desperate to undermine the friendship between India and Afghanistan,'' he said in a statement.

The Indian Embassy in Kabul has been the target of two major attacks, one in July 2008 that killed more than 60 people and another last October that killed 17 people.

Al Jazeera's correspondent in Kabul, Hoda Abdel-Hamid, said that the attack was a message from the Taliban that it would continue its activities despite a major offensive against it in Helmand province.

"There is a concern that as the Nato push against the Taliban goes on, these types of attacks will increase as a result.

"The Taliban is showing that they too are very strong-willed and that they will attack anywhere and anytime they want.

"An attack like this one sends a message that no one is really safe, that even a city like Kabul, with heavy security, is not safe from the conflict anymore," she said.

She said that since Operation Moshtarakbegan 12 days ago, Kabul has been largely safe although attacks have occurred elsewherein Afghanistan.

Nato 'outrage'

Anders Fogh Rasmussen, the Nato secretary-general, expressed outrage over the dawn assault.

"I strongly condemn the terrorist attack which took place this morning in Kabul," Rasmussen said in a statement.

"Once again, the enemies of Afghanistan have killed innocent civilians, Afghans and international workers alike."

After 12 days of fighting, Brigadier General Larry Nicholson, commander of US marines in southern Afghanistan, had welcomed Thursday's flag-hoisting in Marjahas "a new beginning" as Afghan government authority was restored.

Afghans "believe there is a fresh start for Marjah under the government of Afghanistan", he said as the country's flag was hoisted by the governor of Helmand province in front of several hundred residents.

Humanitarian groups have said residents are facing deteriorating conditions as food, medicine and other supplies run dangerously low and innumerable Taliban-planted bombs make movement in and out of Marjah perilous.