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Taliban claims Kabul attack, warns of future assaults in response to ramped-up government airstrikes

An Afghan soldier stands guard near debris on Aug. 4, a day after a powerful explosion that apparently targeted the country's acting defense minister. (Rahmat Gul/AP)

KABUL — The Taliban claimed responsibility Wednesday for an attack on the acting Afghan defense minister, saying the assault was in retaliation for escalating government attacks on Taliban fighters.

“The suicide attack was in reaction to the actions of … the Kabul regime” and those “ordering attacks against innocent people, and bombings of civilian populations,” said Zabiullah Mujahid, a Taliban spokesman.

Fighting between the Taliban and Afghan government forces has intensified in recent weeks as the Afghan military has attempted to retake territory after Taliban advances following the withdrawal of foreign forces.

But Tuesday’s assault marks a departure from recent large-scale attacks. Since the signing of the U.S.-Taliban peace deal last year, car bombings and shootings in the Afghan capital have decreased. Those that have occurred have largely been claimed by the Islamic State or have gone unclaimed. Previously, Taliban attacks rattled Kabul on a near weekly or occasionally more frequent basis.

Acting defense minister Bismillah Khan Mohammadi survived Tuesday’s attack unharmed; he was not present at the guesthouse when the assault occurred. For hours after the initial blast, explosions and gunfights rocked Kabul in some of the most intense fighting in the Afghan capital in months. The Interior Ministry said at least eight civilians were killed and 20 wounded.

A blast near the office of Afghanistan's security agency wounded at least 20 people on Aug. 4, hours after a surge in Taliban violence against the capital. (Video: Reuters)

Speaking after the Taliban claimed responsibility for Tuesday’s attack, State Department spokesperson Ned Price warned that foreign nations would not recognize or support any government in Afghanistan that seized power through force or disregarded civilian life.

“It would be a grave mistake for the Taliban to expect even a de minimis level of international support if they were to seek to do just that,” he said. “Taliban leaders continue to say one thing, namely that they support a negotiated solution of conflict,” he told reporters. “Those words ring hollow when they continue these types of actions.”

Taliban fighters have increased pressure on other major Afghan cities in recent weeks and have surrounded the government compound in the center of Helmand’s provincial capital. Only a handful of government officials remain in the cluster of buildings that house the governor and provincial council in Lashkar Gah.

Afghan forces have long struggled to hold and retake territory without close U.S. air support. As U.S. forces began the last phase of their withdrawal from Afghanistan, Taliban fighters launched attacks, bringing large swaths of territory under the group’s control.

The Taliban now controls roughly half of Afghanistan’s districts, according to U.S. officials. The officials said U.S. warplanes have stepped up attacks in support of government forces.

The United Nations warns that the increased violence could result in record numbers of civilian casualties this year unless the two sides agree to a cease-fire. According to U.N. data, the Taliban and other insurgent groups are responsible for the majority of civilian casualties in Afghanistan. The Taliban uses mortars and other indiscriminate explosives in areas populated by civilians.

But the heavy use of government artillery and airstrikes in populated areas has also caused a spike in the number of civilians killed and injured.

“The Islamic Emirate will not be silent on such brutal actions,” Mujahid said in the Taliban statement Wednesday, referring to civilian casualties caused by government attacks. He said the militant group “will challenge them with full force.”

Haq Nawaz Khan in Peshawar, Pakistan, contributed to this report.