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Blasts and clashes at military hospital in Kabul kill 20 people

People flee blasts near a military hospital in Kabul on Nov. 2. (EPA-EFE/REX/Shutterstock)
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KABUL — Two suicide blasts and gunfire erupted Tuesday at the main military hospital in the Afghan capital, in an attack that left at least 20 people dead and dozens more injured, according to witnesses, a doctor and a Taliban official.

Official Taliban statements put the death toll much lower. Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid said seven civilians and three of the group’s fighters were killed. He did not respond to questions about higher death tolls from eyewitness accounts.

The Islamic State’s branch in Afghanistan, ISIS-K, claimed responsibility for the attack in a statement posted through its Amaq news agency. The violence is the latest challenge to Taliban efforts to maintain security following the group’s takeover in August.

Lal Jan, a shopkeeper who works in front of the hospital and was briefly knocked unconscious by the first blast, said he saw more than two dozen dead outside the hospital alone.

“Everything went dark, and when I opened my eyes all I could see were dead bodies,” he said. The shooting began almost immediately after the explosion. A small group of gunmen ran through the debris into the hospital, “shooting at everyone, in every direction,” the 28-year-old said.

The second explosion came minutes later as he was speeding away in a taxi packed with injured civilians, to a different hospital for treatment.

Habib Rahman, a doctor at Sardar Mohammad Daud Khan military hospital, told The Washington Post he saw at least 20 dead and more than 37 wounded inside the building as he scrambled to escape, but added that he expected the toll to rise because of reports of high civilian casualties from the first explosion at the hospital entrance.

Taliban fighters blocked roads around the large medical complex as ambulances raced to and from the site. Above, plumes of dark smoke rose over the tree line. A local Taliban commander said clashes inside the hospital lasted nearly an hour and a half before the attackers were stopped. He spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to talk to the media.

Of five gunmen, four were killed by Taliban fighters and one was arrested, said Bilal Karimi, the Taliban’s deputy spokesman. “The attackers were firing indiscriminately,” he said, injuring “a number of people,” and the assault “inflicted many civilian casualties.”

But the attack does not suggest security in Afghanistan is deteriorating, he argued. “There are some scattered incidents,” he said, but “in general, the security situation has been improved” since the Taliban took control of Afghanistan.

“The Daesh heretics are under the surveillance of our intelligence agencies. They are being cased and their hideouts are being eliminated,” Karimi said, using an alternate name for the Islamic State.

Outside the nearby hospital that treated at least 21 patients wounded in the attack, a group of Taliban fighters and civilians waited into the evening for news of relatives and comrades.

Afzali, a 22-year-old Taliban fighter, brought a member of his unit there for treatment after he suffered gunshot wounds to the abdomen in Tuesday’s attack. He said he believed the Islamic State was behind the attack, but it “doesn’t mean Daesh is powerful.” He spoke on the condition that he only be identified by his first name because he was not authorized to speak to the press.

At least 20 people were killed and more than 50 wounded in an attack on Afghanistan's biggest military hospital on Nov. 2. (Video: Reuters)

“It’s the same thing that we used to do, so of course Daesh is doing it. They are just copying us,” he said.

The military hospital, in central Kabul near the city’s former diplomatic zone, was the site of a Taliban attack in 2011 that killed at least six. And a rampage claimed by the Islamic State in 2017, when gunmen disguised as medics opened fire on patients and staff members, left at least 30 people dead.

Abdulmajid Sahibzada, a taxi driver whose brother was injured by shrapnel from one of the blasts Tuesday, said he only expects the security situation to get worse as the country’s economic crisis deepens.

“People are not happy with the Taliban because of the economy,” he said. Rising prices and job losses are undercutting Taliban support, and Afghans desperate to provide for their families are fueling Islamic State recruitment, he said.

Last month, the Islamic State claimed responsibility for two large-scale attacks targeting Shiite mosques, one in Kunduz and the other in Kandahar. The Taliban says it is capable of defeating the Islamic State, but the movement lacks the sophisticated intelligence-gathering equipment and weaponry, specifically air power, that was key to previous U.S.-led counterterrorism gains.

But Afzali, the Taliban fighter, said the group doesn’t need outside assistance or technology to defeat the Islamic State.

“We conduct night raids and whenever we find a Daesh member, we just kill them,” he said. “Eventually, they will be defeated.”

Francis reported from London. Haq Nawaz Khan in Peshawar, Pakistan, contributed to this report, which has been updated.