KABUL; At least 30 people have been killed and scores injured in a Taliban car bomb attack and gun battle in a crowded area of Kabul near ministries and government offices.
The heavily laden car exploded shortly before 9am local time outside the office of a security detail responsible for protecting Afghan government VIPs and officials, according to police sources.
The blast ripped through the city, rattling windows several miles away, and was followed by gunfire as attackers took cover in nearby buildings. A Taliban spokesman claimed responsibility for the attack, which was timed, possibly for maximum publicity, to coincide with the launch last week of the insurgents spring offensive.
Gol Rabi Stanikzai, a police commander who was at the scene at the time of the explosion, said: First it felt like an earthquake, and then came the powerful sound of the explosion. I looked around, and everything was full of dust. I ran to get my Kalashnikov, and together with my colleagues began forming a security belt.
Stanikzai spoke to the Guardian at the end of a long row of shops along the river, leading up to the blast site. Several hundred metres away, metal facades were mangled and the ground covered in shattered glass. All the way down here, people were injured, he said.
Mohammad Aref, a 20-year-old shop owner, described seeing all his windows break in the explosion, and at least 50 wounded people being carried away. The clothes of many of them were soaked in blood, he said.
Sediq Sediqqi, an Afghan interior ministry spokesman, said 30 people were killed. Kabuls police chief, Abdul Rahman Rahimi, told reporters at the scene that the attack left 183 injured, but a spokesman for the public health ministry put that figure at 327.
Emergency, an Italian-run hospital for war wounded in Kabul, said it had received 22 casualties, most of them members of the security forces, and most lightly injured. Luca Radaelli, Emergencys medical coordinator, said numbers could rise because it had been difficult to evacuate victims while the fighting continued.
However, Rahimi, the police chief, said there had only been one attacker who was killed after half an hour. Police officers at the scene said that in the confusion after the explosion some security forces inside the attacked compound began firing without being able to see the enemy.
Police quickly cordoned off the area after the initial blast a customary tactic designed in part to avoid potential follow-up attacks.
Hours after the explosion, shopkeepers and residents were arguing with police officers, trying to get permission to enter the area. One young man was slapped by a police officer. Another police officer poked a press photographer with the barrel of his rifle. A woman in a burqa told the police her injured son was at his shop, behind the police barricade, but she too was turned back.
Baryalai Sarwari, 20, who owns an electronics shop close to the offices of the directorate of security for dignitaries, which officials said was the target of the attack, said that when the explosion happened, his uncle and infant nephew were sitting on the floor of the store, and were both covered in glass. The exterior of the shop survived, but everything fell down from the selves, he said. When told of the Talibans claim that the attack targeted their enemies, Sarwari said: All the dead today were civilians.
The directorates offices are across the river from the defence ministry, and close to several other government institutions.
President Ashraf Ghani said in a statement: [We] condemn in the strongest terms the terrorist attack in Pul-e Mahmood Khan neighbourhood of Kabul, as a result of which many of our countrymen were martyred and wounded. Such cowardly terrorist attacks will not weaken the will and determination of Afghan security forces to fight against terrorism.
The Afghan government, backed by its international allies, has for months tried to convince the insurgents to restart peace talks, but so far to no avail.
While the spring fighting season normally heralds intensified attacks, winter was unusually violent, with sustained Taliban offensives around the country and several attacks on the capital.
In January, the Taliban attacked a restaurant in Kabul frequented by foreigners and affluent Afghans, killing a guard and a 12-year-old boy. Later that month, the militant group killed seven employees of TOLO TV in an assault on one of the media groups buses.
On Sunday, the UN released a report documenting a slight increase in civilian casualties in the first three months of 2016 compared with the same period last year.
The report also showed that while the Taliban have scaled down their use of improvised explosive devices and targeted killings, the militants are increasingly using complex and suicide attacks in populated areas.
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