KABUL — A suicide bomber driving an ambulance killed at least 95 people and wounded 158 more in an attack claimed by the Taliban in the Afghan capital Kabul, authorities said. The bombing Saturday came just a week after Taliban militants killed 22 at an international hotel in the city.
It has been a month of relentless attacks in Afghanistan, with the Taliban and the Islamic State affiliate making alternate claims of responsibility.
The brutality and frequency of the attacks, including one in December at a Shiite cultural centre has shattered Afghanistan's usually quiet winter fighting season. The attacks have infuriated Afghans, frustrated by the worsening security after 16 years of war. They have expressed their anger with neighbour Pakistan for harbouring insurgents and with the U.S.-led coalition for its inability to suppress the insurgency. They have also blamed the deteriorating security situation on a deeply divided government embroiled in political feuding that has paralyzed Parliament.
The attacker Saturday used the ambulance to get through a security checkpoint in central Kabul, telling police he was taking a patient to a nearby hospital, said Nasrat Rahimi, deputy spokesperson for the Interior Ministry. He then detonated his explosives at a second checkpoint, Rahimi said.
The Health Ministry said 95 were killed and 158 wounded.
"The majority of the dead in the attack are civilians, but of course we have military casualties as well," Rahimi said. He said four suspects had been arrested and were being questioned but he didn't elaborate.
Zabihullah Mujahid, a Taliban spokesman, claimed responsibility for the bombing, which sent thick, black smoke into the sky from the site near the government's former Interior Ministry building. Also nearby are the European Union and Indian consulates.
In a statement, the spokesman for the U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres condemned the deadly attack in Kabul. "Indiscriminate attacks against civilians ... can never be justified," spokesman Stephane Dujarric said.
U.S. Ambassador to Afghanistan John R. Bass condemned the attack as "senseless and cowardly".
The powerful explosion was felt throughout the capital and covered the blast area in smoke and dust. At the scene, dozens of vehicles were damaged or destroyed. Several shops, including some selling antiques and photography equipment, were also destroyed.
Windows at the nearby Jamhuriat government hospital were shattered and its walls damaged. People ran out to help and ambulances arrived to transport dozens of wounded to area hospitals.
The International Committee of the Red Cross condemned the attack in a tweet, saying: "The use of an ambulance in today's attack in #Kabul is harrowing ... Unacceptable and unjustifiable."
It was the second successful Taliban attack in a week on high security targets in the city.
Last Saturday, six Taliban militants attacked Kabul's Intercontinental Hotel, leaving 22 people dead, including 14 foreigners. Some 150 guests fled the gun battle and fire sparked by the assault by climbing down bedsheets tied to balconies. The U.S. State Department said multiple American citizens were killed and injured in the attack.
The hotel attack prompted the United States to repeat its demand that Pakistan expel Taliban who have found sanctuaries on its soil, with particular reference to the Haqqani network. On Wednesday a U.S. drone slammed into Pakistani tribal territory that borders Afghanistan killing two Haqqani commanders, according to Pakistani officials, who deny providing organized camps for their safety. Pakistan says the Taliban cross the porous border that separates the two countries along with the estimated 1.5 million Afghan refugees still living in Pakistan.
After Saturday's attacks Pakistan issued a statement condemning the bombing.
"No cause or ends justify acts of terrorism against innocent people," the statement said.
Afghan security forces, whose competency has been uneven, have struggled to fight the Taliban since the U.S. and NATO formally ended their combat mission in 2014.
President Donald Trump has pursued a plan that involves sending thousands more U.S. troops to Afghanistan and envisions shifting away from a "time-based" approach to one that more explicitly links U.S. assistance to concrete results from the Afghan government. Trump's U.N. envoy, Nikki Haley, said after a recent visit to Afghanistan that Trump's policy was working and that peace talks between the government and the Taliban are closer than ever before.
On Dec. 28 a suicide bomber and other explosions at a Shiite cultural centre in Kabul killed at least 41 people in an attack claimed by the Islamic State group that may have been aimed at a pro-Iran news outlet based in the building.
On Wednesday, IS militants stormed the offices of Save the Children in eastern Afghanistan killing four and triggering a standoff with police that lasted almost 10 hours. The Islamic State group was involved in at least 10 fatal attacks in Afghanistan last year.
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