At least 48 people, the majority of them students, were killed when a suicide blast ripped through a school in a Shiite area of Kabul Wednesday, officials said, the latest assault on Afghanistan’s war-weary capital.
Around a dozen ambulances rushed to the Mawoud education centre in the western part of the city, where students and relatives described pulling bloodied victims from the rubble of a classroom that had been crowded with teenagers preparing to go to university.
“At around 4 pm this afternoon, a suicide attacker who had strapped explosives to his body detonated himself inside the Mawoud education centre,” police spokesman Hashmat Stanikzai said.
“In the explosion 37 people were killed, more than 40 injured,” he said, adding that the “absolute majority” of them had been students.
He warned the toll could rise. Other officials have put it at as high as 48 people killed, with scores more injured.
It was not clear how many students were at the centre at the time of the attack.
One witness, another student named Ali Ahmad, said as many as 100 students may have been inside when the bomber struck, but officials have not yet confirmed the figure.
“My brother has been injured, possibly killed, because he wasn’t breathing when I took his bloodied body out of the bloody, burning classroom,” one man, who gave his name as Assadullah, said.
He had been nearby when he heard the blast, and ran to the centre, he told AFP.
His brother, Nusratullah, was around 17 years old, he said, sobbing over the phone.
“He was a smart and energetic boy, top of his class,” Assadullah said. “Now… I am not sure he will survive.”
There was no immediate claim of responsibility for the attack, which was swiftly condemned by President Ashraf Ghani in a statement.
Both the Taliban and the Islamic State group (IS) have carried out devastating, high-profile attacks in Kabul in recent months, but the Taliban quickly denied they were involved.
The explosion, targeting an educational center in the west of the Afghan capital, tore through a large tent set up as a classroom in the courtyard, killing dozens of teenagers studying for a university entrance examination. The blast, which shattered weeks of relative calm in Kabul, also wounded at least 67, including both male and female students.
“Most of the boys at the educational center have been killed,” said Sayed Ali, who witnessed the blast. “It was horrific and many of the students were torn to pieces.”
Doctors at city hospitals, where people had gathered to try to find relatives who had been studying at the center, said many of the victims were severely burned.
“My brother was studying at the center and he was killed. I’m here to get his body,” said Abdul Khaliq, waiting outside the Isteqlal hospital.
There was no immediate claim of responsibility for the Kabul blast but the attack bore the hallmark of Islamic State, which has conducted many previous attacks on Shi’ite targets. The Taliban issued a statement denying it was involved.
The explosion, which came as the central city of Ghazni struggles to recover from five days of intense fighting between the Taliban and government forces, underlined how badly security in Afghanistan has degenerated, some two months before parliamentary elections scheduled for October.
– Grinding conflict –
The assault underscores the price that ordinary Afghans have paid in the grinding conflict as the country reels from a recent upsurge in militant violence, including a massive, days-long Taliban onslaught on the eastern city of Ghazni.
Afghan forces appeared to have finally pushed Taliban fighters from the strategic provincial capital on Wednesday, as shopkeepers and residents warily returned to the streets after days of intense ground fighting and US airstrikes.
Security forces were on patrol and no militants were in sight in the centre of the shattered city, with fighting which began late Thursday seeming to have finally ceased.
But analysts said the Taliban had scored a military and psychological victory against Kabul in Ghazni, proving they have the strength to strike a strategically vital city near the capital at will and remain entrenched there for days.
The fall of a northern base this week, with at least 17 soldiers killed, was a further blow to Afghan security forces, already demoralised by staggering casualties.
“What we’ve seen over the last few days is a microcosm of the war in Afghanistan — overmatched Afghan troops, emboldened Taliban fighters, and American forces that eventually come in to help bail the Afghans out,” analyst Michael Kugelman of the Wilson Center in Washington told AFP.
“What’s crystal clear is that nearly four years after the Afghan security forces took over the war efforts, they’re still woefully unprepared for the task — despite very real improvements in capacities in recent years.”
That gives the government a strong incentive to build on recent, tentative signs that diplomatic efforts to kick-start peace negotiations are starting to bear fruit, he said.
But for the insurgents, Ghazni in particular was being seen as a show of strength. “For the insurgents, the thinking is, ‘why quit when we’re ahead’?” Kugelman said.
At least 100 security forces were killed in the fight for Ghazni, officials have said, with unconfirmed fears that at least as many civilians died.
The surge in violence comes weeks after Afghans marked an unprecedented country-wide ceasefire between the Taliban and government forces in June, giving some relief to war-weary civilians.
It also comes as US and Afghan forces intensify ground and air offensives against the Islamic State (IS), and the Taliban step up their turf war with the group.
The Taliban have not claimed a major assault in Kabul for weeks.
IS, however, has carried out multiple attacks in the eastern city of Jalalabad and the capital in recent months, and has increasingly targeted the Shiite minority.
Earlier this month, IS claimed responsiblity for twin blasts at a mosque in the eastern city of Gardez that killed at least 35 people.
Earlier on Wednesday, local officials said at least nine policemen and 35 soldiers were killed in an attack on their base in the northern province of Baghlan, the latest of a series that has killed dozens of members of the security forces nationwide.
The United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan called for the fighting to stop, saying up to 150 civilians are estimated to have been killed in Ghazni, where the public hospital was overwhelmed and water and electricity supplies cut.
“The extreme human suffering caused by the fighting in Ghazni highlights the urgent need for the war in Afghanistan to end,” the top U.N. official in Afghanistan, Tadamichi Yamamoto, said in a statement.
The Taliban, who launched their Ghazni assault last Friday and battled Afghan forces backed by U.S. air strikes in the middle of the city for days, said their fighters had been pulled out to prevent further harm to the city’s population.
“They were facing severe shortages of food and drinking water as the power supply was also suspended two days ago,” a Taliban commander, who declined to be identified, said by telephone.
The International Committee of the Red Cross said it was providing dressing packages and oral and intravenous medicine to treat the wounded, along with electricity generators and fresh water for about 18,000 people.
The Ghazni attack, one of the Taliban’s most devastating in years, has clouded hopes for peace talks that had been prompted by an unprecedented ceasefire during the Eid celebration in June and a meeting last month between Taliban officials and a senior U.S. diplomat.
Two senior Taliban leaders told Reuters this week the group was considering announcing a ceasefire for the feast of Eid-al Adha, which begins next week, but the future of any peace process remained uncertain.
With parliamentary elections due on Oct. 20, authorities had been bracing for more attacks in Kabul and other cities, but even so, the scale of the violence has come as a shock to a government facing bitter criticism over its handling of the war.
In the southern province of Zabul, Taliban insurgents clashed with soldiers on Tuesday, forcing the government to send reinforcements from neighboring provinces to retain control of two checkposts.
The clashes killed 11 soldiers and one policeman, with three soldiers wounded, said Haji Atta Jan Haqbayan, a Zabul provincial council member.
Separately, six girls younger than 10 were killed when an unexploded mortar they picked up to play with suddenly exploded on Wednesday, officials in the eastern province of Laghman said.