KABUL — Just after 8 a.m. Monday, a familiar boom filled the air and rattled windows across the Afghan capital. Local news photographers, reporters and TV crews grabbed their gear and rushed to the scene of the latest suicide bombing in a long and bloody conflict. Though such incidents were never without risk, the journalists were used to covering them — and rather competitive about getting there first.
But about 20 minutes later, when the journalists were gathered watching emergency workers at the bomb site in a high-security official zone, another explosion erupted in their midst. A second suicide bomber, on foot and carrying a press pass and camera, had joined and targeted the very group of people tasked with covering such violence.
Of the 25 Afghans who died in the twin blasts, nine were journalists at the second one. An additional 45 people were injured. Claimed by the Islamic State, it was the single deadliest attack on the press since the overthrow of Taliban rule in 2001. Later in the day, an Afghan reporter for the BBC was killed in a separate attack in Khost province.
“This is a black day for our country, and for every journalist in Afghanistan,” Fawad Nasiri, 25, a journalist at Radio Azadi, said Monday morning. He was waiting outside an operating room at Wazir Akbar Khan Hospital, where one of his colleagues was undergoing surgery. “We lost a lot of friends today. I’m sorry, I cannot say any more.”
A few hundred yards away, at the hospital morgue, a cluster of men watched somberly as the body of Nawroz Ali Rajabi, a young reporter for the TV One news channel, was pulled from a steel drawer and lowered into a pasteboard coffin. The men were his brothers, cousins and colleagues. Several peered down at his burned and bruised face, then gasped or turned away, sobbing.
One man gently zipped up the black body bag. Another nailed down the coffin lid. A cousin, red-eyed and shaking with anger, shouted, “The sons of generals and officials drive in armored cars, but we poor people are being killed.” Then the men hoisted the box onto their shoulders, chanting a Koranic prayer, and carried it out to be buried.
The blasts, which occurred in the heavily guarded zone that houses foreign embassies, Afghan government offices and NATO’s mission in Afghanistan, also killed Shah Marai, the chief photographer here for Agence France-Presse, and seven journalists from local TV and radio stations. Six others were among the wounded.
The heavy casualties left Kabul’s war-hardened press corps reeling in shock and grief. Dozens of Afghan journalists have died covering combat and conflict in recent years, but this was a deliberate attack on a group of professionals and friends in the capital, many of whom who had worked together for years.
Afghan press associations and individual journalists complained Monday that the government was not doing enough to protect them, and some suggested they be provided with armed guards and flak jackets. There was also anger that the Afghan intelligence service did not take more defensive action after the first bomber, on a motorbike, detonated his explosives outside its compound.
“On the one hand, we have to cover the news. On the other hand, our people need to be protected,” said a TV One manager who asked not to be named, citing insecure conditions for journalists. In addition to Rajabi, he said, a station cameraman died in the blast.
“We lost two of our best employees,” he said. “We will honor them, and we will help support their families, but this hurts our souls.”
The twin bombings came just over a week after a massive suicide attack killed at least 57 people in the Afghan capital. In that attack, also claimed by the Islamic State, a suicide bomber on foot detonated explosives outside a building where people were waiting in a long line to obtain voter ID cards.
Several hours after the Monday bombings, the regional branch of the Islamic State posted a statement online saying that two of its “martyrs” had carried out an attack on the Afghan intelligence service in Kabul.
Both the Taliban and the Islamic State have often used the tactic of quick-succession bombings to increase casualty tolls.
At the Pentagon, Defense Secretary Jim Mattis said that although Taliban and Islamic State militants occasionally fight each other, they share a goal of destabilizing the government. He said they “cannot win at the ballot box, so they turn to bombs.”
International media groups mourned the slain Afghan journalists and denounced the cruelty of the attack that claimed their lives.
“This latest attack on journalists in Afghanistan is a reminder of the extreme dangers to media workers in that country and of the extremely brutal tactics used there by enemies of the free press,” said a statement by Steven Butler, Asia program coordinator for the Committee to Protect Journalists.
Reporters Without Borders urged the United Nations to create a special representative for the protection of journalists. “It is high time that the U.N. sent a strong signal to the international community,” the group’s secretary general, Christophe Deloire, said in a statement.
The bombings occurred on the same day that one U.S. service member was killed and another wounded during a combat operation in eastern Afghanistan, the U.S. military said in a statement. Several Afghan troops also were killed or wounded, and the surviving wounded U.S. service member was taken to a military hospital at Bagram air base.
In southern Kandahar province Monday, meanwhile, NATO officials said 11 children were killed when a convoy of Romanian troops was struck by a car bomb near a religious school in a densely populated area. They said 16 people were wounded, including eight Romanian troops, Afghan civilians and policemen.
Taliban insurgents last week announced the launch of their annual spring offensive, dimming hopes for peace talks recently proposed by the government. The group said it would target Afghan and foreign forces but would avoid civilian casualties. The Islamic State, however, has made targeting civilians a key part of its strategy.
All morning, sirens wailed as ambulances rushed from the Kabul blast site to several hospitals. In one ward at Wazir Akbar Khan Hospital, severely wounded police officers were lying in a row of beds, surrounded by anxious relatives and medical staff. One had a bandaged face and breathing tube. A nurse said he was in a coma and might not survive. A younger man burst into the room, stared closely at his face and began weeping.
Outside the hospital, families looked anxiously at lists of blast patients posted on the walls, and some donated blood to help their injured relatives. Among the families was an English teacher named Amanullah. He said his nephew, a doctor, had just finished the night shift and passed by the blast site on his way home. He was badly injured by shrapnel and underwent three hours of surgery.
“So many innocent people died,” said Amanullah, 30. “These are terrorists. They just want to destroy our country. Muslim people would never do this. We just want peace with no blasts, no killing, no kidnappings. It may be impossible, but we have to try.”
Sayed Salahuddin in Kabul and
Dan Lamothe in Washington contributed to this report.