KABUL — A suicide bomber detonated an ambulance packed with explosives outside a hospital in central Kabul Saturday, officials said, killing at least 95 people and wounding 158. It was the third major attack in Afghanistan in the past week and one of the deadliest in the shell-shocked capital.
Taliban insurgents claimed responsibility for the midday attack, which left bodies strewn across several blocks in a crowded section of the city that includes an Interior Ministry compound, a historic antique and carpet market, and the government-run Jamhuriyat Hospital.
The audacious bombing came just six days after Taliban fighters stormed a luxury hilltop hotel in Kabul and held it for more than 14 hours, killing 22 people. including four Americans and 10 other foreigners. The extremist group said the attack was aimed at killing "foreign occupiers" and their Afghan collaborators.
On Wednesday, an assault on the office of a British charity, Save the Children, in the eastern city of Jalalabad, killed four people. That attack was claimed by the Islamic State.
For hours after the blast, plumes of smoke rose from buildings, glass was shattered for blocks around, cars were in charred heaps and ambulance sirens wailed. One hospital received so many victims that news reports said some had to be treated in the facility's yard despite the winter cold.
"I have not seen such a horrible scene in my entire life," said Mohammad Fahim, 20, an employee of the Kabul police department who was inside the mosque of the Interior Ministry compound when the bomb exploded yards away. He said the mosque's windows shattered, wounding him slightly, and he came out to help evacuate more seriously hurt people to hospitals.
Hours after the bombing, municipal trucks carried loads of debris and broken glass from the site, and people crowded outside the gates of the Emergency Hospital, some seeking information about their loved ones and others offering to donate blood.
"For God's sake, read the list," one man pleaded with hospital employees who had brought out a list of people admitted with injuries. Mohammed Hussain Akbari, 22, waited two hours for news of his uncle, who had recently applied to join the police force. "He is not among the wounded. I hope he is not among the martyrs," Akbari said.
A Taliban spokesman, Zabiullah Mujahid, said in an emailed statement that the attack was aimed at a police check post near the ministry, but officials said most of those killed and injured were civilians. The blast also occurred close to an office of the Afghan High Peace Council, which was established to promote peace talks with the Taliban.
The devastation recalled the horrific truck bombing in Kabul last May, which left 150 people dead and more than 400 injured in a highly guarded official and diplomatic area. That attack, which set off days of angry protests against the government, was claimed by the Haqqani network, a Taliban faction.
In addition to launching a rapid series of urban attacks in recent days, the Taliban has also made aggressive new forays into remote rural regions, especially Faryab province in the north, where there have been heavy clashes between the insurgents and Afghan security forces.
The multipronged blitz comes as the U.S. military is expanding its presence in the country by several thousand troops and taking on new roles. These include training Afghan special operations forces and air force pilots and becoming more actively involved in combat support in an effort to turn the tide of a 16-year conflict that shows no signs of letting up.
The persistent Taliban threat, augmented by periodic attacks by the Islamic State — known here by the acronym Daesh — has created growing public frustration and disillusionment with the government of President Ashraf Ghani. It has been consumed by political battles and faulted for failing to keep even the capital secure.
"Our leaders fight each other over government positions. Taliban and Daesh are taking advantage of the situation," said a man seeking news of his missing uncle at the Emergency Hospital.
Ahmad Saeedi, a former diplomat, told a TV news interviewer that "if the current government had a conscience, all these attacks wouldn't have happened. The authorities are busy with personal confrontations and deals." Officials "wear posh suits" and visit hospitals to show off, he said, but "they don't care about what is going on in this country."
Constable reported from Islamabad, Pakistan.