Massive Blast Hits Kabul Wedding, At Least 20 Wounded

 

At least 20 people were wounded in a blast at a Kabul wedding hall late Saturday, a local hospital said, as a government official circulated images showing what appeared to be many dead bodies.

The explosion comes just as the US and the Taliban are widely expected to sign off on a deal that would see American troops begin to depart Afghanistan in return for various security assurances from the Taliban.

“#Kabul #Afghanistan explosion in a hotel during a wedding party, about 20 patients arrived up to now at our hospital #masscasualty,” the Italian-run Emergency hospital of Kabul said on Twitter.

Interior ministry spokesman Nasrat Rahimi said the blast occurred in a west Kabul wedding hall around 10:40 pm (1810 GMT).

He shared on Facebook photos showing several apparent bodies inside a dining area.

No group immediately claimed responsibility.

Afghan weddings are an epic and vibrant affair, with hundreds or often thousands of guests celebrating inside industrial-scale wedding halls where the men are usually segregated from the women and children.

Insurgents have periodically struck Afghan weddings, which are seen as “soft” targets with minimal security precautions.

On July 12, at least six people were killed when a suicide bomber attacked a wedding ceremony in the eastern Afghan province of Nangarhar. The Islamic State group, which is present in the region, claimed the blast.

Expectations are rising for a deal in which the US would start withdrawing its approximately 14,000 soldiers from Afghanistan after a two-decade war that has turned into a stalemate.

US President Donald Trump has said since the start of his presidency that he wants troops out of the country, where Washington has spent more than $1 trillion.

In return for the US departure, the Taliban would commit to various security guarantees, including that the Islamist hardliners who long harboured Al-Qaeda would not allow Afghanistan to once again become a jihadist safe haven.

AFP

20 Dead As Violence Mars Afghan Election Season Start

 

 

Deadly violence marred the start of Afghanistan’s election season on the weekend, after President Ashraf Ghani insisted “peace is coming” to the war-torn nation.

At least 20 people were killed and 50 others wounded on Sunday in an attack targeting the Kabul office of Ghani’s running mate, Amrullah Saleh.

The violence came on the first day of campaigning for the upcoming presidential elections, serving as a grim reminder of Afghanistan’s woeful security situation and the sort of mayhem and murder that have beset previous polls.

The attack began around 4:40 pm (1210 GMT), when a huge blast struck near the office of Green Trend, a youth and reform-focused civil society organisation Saleh heads. He escaped without serious injury, his office said.

The interior ministry said the assault began when a suicide bomber detonated an explosives-packed car at the entrance to the building, then three attackers ran inside.

After about six hours the siege ended with all attackers killed and the rescue of about 150 people who had been trapped in the building, according to the interior ministry, which also provided the toll of 20 dead and 50 wounded.

No group immediately claimed responsibility.

Earlier on Sunday, a buoyant Ghani kicked off his campaign by insisting “peace is coming,” after nearly 18 years of conflict, and that pivotal talks with the Islamist extremist Taliban would take place.

He is hoping to fend off challenges from 17 other candidates to score a second term at twice-postponed presidential elections now slated for September 28.

On Saturday Ghani’s peace minister, Abdul Salam Rahimi, said direct talks would take place with the Taliban within two weeks as part of a larger, US-led push for peace.

Such a development could be crucial, as the Taliban — who now control or influence about half of Afghanistan — have so far refused to speak to Ghani’s government. They consider the Kabul administration illegitimate.

– Despondent voters –
War aside, the country faces a host of major issues ahead of the election, including rocketing crime, a lacklustre economy, soaring unemployment, and crumbling infrastructure.

Voters are despondent about the prospects of a fair election. Many worry about a repeat of violent attacks on previous polling stations by the Taliban and other insurgent groups trying to undermine Afghanistan’s fragile democracy.

Ghani insisted this year’s vote would be “clean”, but distrust is rife.

Sayed Jan, a 27-year-old student, said he won’t be voting as he has lost faith since the 2014 election that was mired in allegations of fraud and ballot stuffing.

“We have been betrayed by the candidates in the past. We cannot trust them this time,” he told AFP.

“We need peace in Afghanistan instead of elections. Even if I vote, the election will be fraudulent.”

‘Opportunities for peace’

In Kabul, security forces fanned out across the city as leading candidates held rallies.

Ghani’s top rival is Abdullah Abdullah, who currently serves as the president’s chief executive under an awkward power-sharing arrangement brokered by the US after the 2014 election.

“It is our national and religious duty to take advantage of any opportunities for peace,” Abdullah told a campaign rally.

One crucial issue is that the elections happen at all: they were postponed twice this year and further delays could lead to more distrust.

Despite Ghani’s claim that a summit between his government and the Taliban would take place shortly, the insurgents said they would only talk to Kabul after the US had announced a timeline for a withdrawal of foreign forces — a major part of any deal.

“The Kabul administration will be considered a political side, just like others, and not a government,” Taliban political spokesman Suhail Shaheen wrote in Pashto on Twitter.

Diplomatic sources have told AFP the Afghan-Taliban talks are scheduled to begin in Oslo on August 7.

US peace envoy Zalmay Khalilzad said Saturday that new “intra-Afghan” negotiations would only take place after the US and Taliban had concluded their own agreements.

Washington is hoping for a political agreement with the insurgents ahead of the September presidential election.

Other presidential candidates include Ghani’s former national security advisor Hanif Atmar and former warlord Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, nicknamed the “Butcher of Kabul” for his alleged role in the killing of thousands of people in the capital in the 1990s.

AFP

At Least 10 Killed As Three Blasts Rock Kabul

 

 

At least 10 people — including several women and a child — were killed and 41 others wounded by a series of blasts that rocked the Afghan capital Thursday ahead of the election season.

The three blasts came amid a wider surge in violence in Kabul and around Afghanistan, where nine family members were killed in an eastern province Thursday while heading to a wedding.

The Taliban claimed responsibility for one of the Kabul blasts, which came just three days before the official campaign season for the September 28 presidential election gets underway.

Previous polls have been marred by violence and bloodshed from the Taliban and other insurgent groups who refuse to recognise Afghanistan’s fragile democracy.

According to interior ministry spokesman Nasrat Rahimi, the first blast came around 8:10 am (0340 GMT) when a suicide bomber riding a motorcycle hit a bus in eastern Kabul. He said the bus belonged to the ministry of mines and petroleum.

A second blast detonated nearby soon after, with a third coming in a separate district also in eastern Kabul, Rahimi added.

Health ministry spokesman Wahidullah Mayar said the toll from the blasts was at least 10 dead, including five women and a child, and 41 wounded.

The attacks come as the US is negotiating for a deal that would see foreign forces pull out of Afghanistan in return for a ceasefire and various Taliban security guarantees, including a pledge that the country will not become a safe haven for terror groups.

Some observers say the insurgents are increasing attacks to gain greater leverage in the talks.

Family killed

The Afghan war continues to take a brutal toll on civilians even amid the push for peace.

Attaullah Khogyani, spokesman for the eastern province of Nangarhar, said a car carrying a family on its way to a wedding was hit by a roadside bomb Thursday in Khogyani district.

As a result, six women and three children were killed, he said. No group immediately claimed responsibility.

A suicide attack on a wedding in Nangarhar on July 12, reportedly by a child bomber, was claimed by the Islamic State group, which has a growing footprint in that part of Afghanistan.

US peace envoy Zalmay Khalilzad, who is in Kabul this week, is expected to travel to Qatar’s capital Doha in coming days for the new round of talks with the Taliban.

The US has also stepped up its air campaign against the Taliban this year, and all sides claim to have inflicted heavy casualties on each other.

Still, the US and the Taliban insist they are making progress, and the insurgents and a group of Afghans this month made a vague and unbinding pledge to try to reduce civilian deaths to “zero”.

But civilians continue to pay a heavy price in Afghanistan’s raging conflict, with last year the deadliest on record for ordinary Afghans.

According to a UN tally, at 3,804 civilians died in the war in 2018, including 927 children.

President Donald Trump has said he wants the US to quit Afghanistan as soon as possible.

He provoked outrage in Afghanistan this week when he claimed he could easily win the war but did not “want to kill 10 million people” or wipe Afghanistan “off the face of the Earth”.

AFP

At Least 50 Children Wounded In Taliban Attack On Kabul

File photo of an explosion in Kabul central

 

At least 50 children were among nearly 100 people wounded Monday when the Taliban detonated a powerful car bomb in an area of Kabul housing military and government buildings, officials said.

The rush-hour blast, which sent a plume of smoke into the air and shook buildings nearly two kilometres (1.2 miles) away, was followed by gunmen storming a building and triggering a gun battle with special forces in the Puli Mahmood Khan neighbourhood of the Afghan capital.

The health ministry said at least one person had been killed and 93 wounded.

Among them were 50 children, the education ministry said in a statement, adding that most had been hurt by flying glass and were in stable condition.

Some social media images purportedly taken at a hospital showed wounded, stunned children in school uniforms, still clutching books as they arrived for treatment.

In its statement, the education ministry said five schools had been partially damaged, and asked “all sides involved in fighting to guarantee the safety of students, teachers, education workers and schools”.

READ ALSO: At Least 65 Wounded As Powerful Car Bomb Rocks Kabul

The Taliban claimed the attack, which came just two days after the insurgents began a seventh round of talks with the US in Qatar as Washington eyes a breakthrough before Afghanistan’s September presidential election.

Militant spokesman Zabiullah Mujahid said the insurgents had targeted a defence ministry building in the area, which was quickly blocked off by Afghan forces and ambulances, with helicopter gunships seen overhead as gunfire continued.

Authorities have not confirmed the target, but Interior ministry spokesman Nasrat Rahimi said the area had been cordoned off by special forces who were “bringing down” the attackers, with at least two killed.

“Security forces also rescued 210 civilians from buildings nearby,” he said.

AFP reporters could hear gunshots and multiple smaller explosions as fighting continued nearly seven hours after the first blast.

“We were sitting inside the office when the world turned upside down on us,” Zaher Usman, an employee at a branch of the culture ministry, which he said stands just 150 metres (yards) from the blast.

Brief lockdown

“When I opened my eyes, the office was filled with smoke and dust and everything was broken, my colleagues were screaming,” Usman told AFP by telephone.

Shams Amini, a spokesman for the Afghan Football Federation, told AFP that the blast occurred near their HQ gates, and said some colleagues had been injured.

Nearby Shamshad TV station, which was attacked in 2017, aired images of broken glass and damage to its offices. “I was terrified,” Shamshad anchor Hashmat Stanikzai told AFP. A media watchdog said seven Shamshad journalists were among the wounded.

The attack came as the US was set to begin a third day of negotiations with the militants in Doha. There was no immediate confirmation if they would go ahead after the blast.

With the attack still ongoing, the Taliban spokesman in Doha again insisted that the insurgents will not negotiate with Kabul.

“Once the timeline for the withdrawal of foreign forces is set in the presence of international observers, then we will begin the talks to the Afghan sides, but we will not talk to the Kabul administration as a government,” Suhail Shaheen tweeted.

A potential deal would see the US agree to withdraw its troops after more than 17 years in Afghanistan, igniting deep concerns among Afghans who fear Washington will rush for the exits and allow the militants to return to some semblance of power.

In return, the Taliban would guarantee the country would never again become a safe haven for violent extremism, as happened with Al-Qaeda before the September 11, 2001 attacks.

However, US officials have insisted that “nothing is agreed until everything is agreed”, including intra-Afghan talks.

AFP

Dozens Wounded As Powerful Blast Rocks Kabul

Afghan men walk on a road as smoke rises from the site of an attack in Kabul on July 1, 2019. Dozens of people were wounded with fatalities feared as a powerful car bomb rocked Kabul early July 1, followed by gunmen battling special forces in an area housing military and government buildings, officials said. STR / AFP

Dozens of people were wounded with fatalities feared as a powerful explosion rocked Kabul early Monday, targeting an area of the Afghan capital housing military and government buildings, officials said.

The rush-hour explosion sent a plume of smoke into the air above the Puli Mahmood Khan neighbourhood of the city, interior ministry spokesman Nasrat Rahimi said.

An AFP reporter said he could hear gunshots shortly after the blast.

“Dozens of wounded were taken to hospitals from today’s blast in Kabul,” health ministry spokesman Wahidullah Mayar tweeted.

The area was quickly blocked off by Afghan forces and ambulances, while the nearby “Green Zone” diplomatic area was put on lockdown, with no one allowed in or out.

The heavily-secured neighbourhood is home to some military and government buildings, including one shared by Afghanistan’s intelligence agency and defence ministry, as well as the Afghan Football Federation and the Afghan Cricket Board.

Shams Amini, a football federation spokesman, told AFP that the blast occurred near the federation’s gates.

“Some of our colleagues are trapped inside, we have reports of some injuries. We don’t know if the attackers have entered the building,” he said.

READ ALSO: Plane Crash In Texas Kills 10

Nearby Shamshad TV station, which was attacked in 2017, aired images of broken glass and damage to its offices but said it was not the target.

No group immediately claimed responsibility, and police said they did not yet know the target or nature of the blast.

Both the Taliban and the so-called Islamic State group are active in Kabul.

The explosion came two days after the Taliban and the US began their seventh round of talks in the Qatari capital of Doha as Washington eyes a breakthrough before Afghanistan’s September presidential election.

The negotiations have so far centred on four issues — counter-terrorism, the foreign troop presence, an intra-Afghan dialogue, and a permanent ceasefire.

A potential deal would see the US agree to withdraw its troops after more than 17 years in Afghanistan, igniting deep concerns among huge swathes of Afghans who fear the militants will return to some semblance of power.

In return the Taliban would guarantee the country would never again become a safe haven for violent extremist groups, as happened with Al-Qaeda before the September 11, 2001 attacks.

US officials have previously said they are hoping for a deal before the upcoming Afghan presidential elections, which have already been delayed twice and are now set for September.

Taliban Overruns International NGO’s Office In Kabul Attack

A wounded Afghan man is brought on a stretcher to an Italian aid organisation hospital as Afghan security forces battled an ongoing attack by Taliban militants on a compound housing an international aid organisation in Kabul on May 8, 2019. WAKIL KOHSAR / AFP

 

Taliban militants stormed a US-funded aid group’s central Kabul compound in an ongoing attack Tuesday, having targeted the organisation for promoting Western culture and the “inter-mixing” of men and women.

At least nine people were wounded in the latest attack to rock the Afghan capital, which came even as US and Taliban officials were meeting in Qatar for talks aimed at bringing an end to Afghanistan’s war.

The assault began around midday (0730 GMT) when a massive blast tore across Kabul. Interior ministry spokesman Nasrat Rahimi said attackers then entered the compound of Counterpart International, a non-profit group funded at least in part by the US Agency for International Development (USAID).

“The police have surrounded the area and a clearing operation is ongoing,” Rahimi said, later adding that in the hours following the initial blast, 169 people were rescued from the site.

READ ALSO: Suicide Blast Kills At Least 10 At Popular Shrine

Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid quickly claimed responsibility for the attack, saying Counterpart International was targeted because it promoted the “inter-mixing” of men and women.

The aid group mentored “Kabul admin workers in various aspects of brutality, oppression, terror, anti-Islamic ideology & promotion of western culture,” Mujahid said on Twitter.

The counterpart was not immediately available to comment, but the group’s website says it runs a USAID-funded Afghan civic engagement programme supporting women and other marginalised groups across Afghanistan.

Emergency, an Italian-run trauma center in Kabul, said it had received 15 patients so far. Wahidullah Mayar, the spokesman for the ministry of public health, said at least nine people had been wounded.

The huge explosion shook nearby buildings and shattered windows.

“We started running out of the building and while running outside, I heard small gunfire and the sound of grenades going off nearby,” said Akbar Khan Sahadat, a prosecutor in the Attorney General’s office which was close to the scene of the blast.

John Bass, the US ambassador to Afghanistan, said he strongly condemned the attack against the US non-governmental organisation.

“The targeted organization helps local communities, trains journalists and supports the Afghan people,” he said on Twitter.

“For this, it is the target of senseless violence,” he added, thanking local security forces for their rapid response.

The UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan said the attack was “particularly deplorable, hitting civilians helping Afghans & taking place during Ramadan”.

 Difficult peace talks 

The Taliban are notorious for their treatment of women during their reign from 1996-2001 when the Islamist extremists kept women locked up in houses, barred them from getting an education and sometimes stoned them to death on flimsy allegations of adultery.

Suhail Shaheen, the Taliban’s political spokesman, told AFP earlier this week that the latest round of peace talks, currently taking place in Doha, had become bogged down over the issue of when foreign forces might withdraw in return for the Taliban security guarantees.

The two foes are hammering out a deal that could see foreign forces leave Afghanistan in return for a ceasefire, talks between the government and the Taliban, and a guarantee the country will not be used as a safe haven for terror groups.

The talks follow a massive peace summit in Kabul last week where President Ashraf Ghani offered the Taliban a ceasefire to begin on the first day of Ramadan — but the insurgents refused.

The insurgents have rebuffed repeated calls to halt fighting over the last year as they seek to gain leverage at the negotiating table by pressing the fight on the battlefield.

Last year the Taliban announced a three-day ceasefire at the end of Ramadan after Ghani declared a unilateral truce for eight days earlier in the month, in the first formal nationwide ceasefire since the US-led invasion of 2001.

Since then the insurgents have steadfastly refused to talk to Ghani, who they view as a US puppet, and talks thus far have cut out his government.

According to Counterpart International’s website, the organisation was founded in 1965 by Australian actress Betty Bryant Silverstein and a priest called Father Stan Hosie.

Officials earlier wrongly identified the target of Tuesday’s attack as the nearby CARE International.

AFP

Loud Explosion, Gunfire Rock Kabul Central

File photo of an explosion in Kabul central

 

A loud explosion and follow-up gunfire were heard in an ongoing assault near the Afghan communication ministry in central Kabul on Saturday, officials said.

The attack occurred a day after talks fell apart between the Taliban and Afghan representatives. No one claimed immediate responsibility and there was no immediate word on casualties.

“The information that we have is four attackers have placed themselves near the communication ministry and are engaged in gun battles with the Afghan security forces,” Amanduddin Shariati, a security official in Kabul told AFP.

READ ALSOEgyptians Vote In Referendum To Extend Sisi’s Rule

Interior ministry spokesman Nasrat Rahimi said an explosion was heard near the communication ministry around 11:40 am (0710 GMT), followed by sporadic gunfire.

Local television footage showed a small plume of smoke near the ministry, and people climbing out the windows on a lower level.

Intermittent firing could still be heard more one hour after the blast, and the area had been cordoned off by security forces.

The communication ministry is located in downtown Kabul, about two kilometres (1.25 miles) from the green zone. It is the city’s main commercial area and has several large hotels.

The communication ministry itself is an 18-storey building, thought to be the tallest building in Kabul.

The explosion comes a week after the Taliban announced their annual spring offensive and amid ongoing fighting across Afghanistan.

The Afghan branch of the Islamic State group has also previously carried out multiple deadly attacks in Kabul.

The capital has in recent weeks enjoyed a period of relative calm, after a horrific year last year in which it saw a string of attacks including a massive bomb that was concealed in an ambulance and killed more than 100 people.

This week in the Qatari capital Doha, a summit planned between the Taliban and officials from across Afghanistan fell apart at the last minute due to bickering over who should attend the conference.

The collapse comes at a critical time and amid continued bloodshed in Afghanistan, where the Taliban now control or influence about half of Afghanistan and 3,804 civilians were killed there last year, according to a UN tally.

Taliban officials are separately negotiating with the United States, which wants to forge a peace deal with the militants.

Taliban Kill Nine Police In Checkpoint Assault

File photo

 

Nine Afghan policemen were killed when Taliban fighters stormed their checkpoints and launched a follow-up ambush in the eastern Afghanistan city of Ghazni, officials said Saturday.

The assault began early Friday when the Taliban attacked two adjacent checkpoints, Ghazni police spokesman Ahmad Khan Seerat told AFP.

The Taliban then ambushed a group of police rushing to the scene, killing the head of the local police, Seerat added.

In all, nine officers were killed and six were wounded, he said.

The toll was confirmed by Arif Noori, spokesman for the Ghazni governor.

In August, Taliban fighters briefly held the city of Ghazni before they were pushed out by US air strikes and Afghan forces.

Friday’s attack highlights the ongoing fragility of Afghanistan’s security and the risks faced by local security forces as they man vulnerable checkpoints.

President Ashraf Ghani in January said 45,000 security forces have been killed since he took office in September 2014.

On its Twitter account, the Taliban claimed to have killed 12 “soldiers,” though the group frequently exaggerates numbers.

Meanwhile, in Zabul in southern Afghanistan late Friday, Gul Islam Seyal, spokesman for the local governor, told AFP that four policemen were killed and two wounded after a “Taliban infiltrator” opened fire at a checkpoint.

The attacks come as the United States seeks to broker a peace accord with the Taliban and the Kabul government, more than 17 years since the US-led invasion that ousted the Islamist fighters.

Four Killed, 44 Wounded In Kabul Car Bomb Attack

Bomb Blast In Kabul
Bomb Blast In Kabul (file photo)

 

A car bomb exploded near a heavily fortified foreign compound in Kabul on Monday, killing at least four people and wounding 44, officials said, in the latest attack to rock the Afghan capital.

There was no immediate claim of responsibility for the huge blast, which shook the city, but it comes as diplomatic efforts to end the 17-year war with the Taliban gather pace.

Militants targeted Green Village, located near a busy road in the east of the city and where some foreign workers are based, said interior ministry spokesman Najib Danish.

At least 10 children were among the wounded, he added.

Until recently some United Nations’ staff had lived and worked at the highly secure compound, but Danish said the area was now largely empty and “only a number of guards” were left.

“Residential houses nearby have sustained heavy damage,” Danish said.

“Special police forces’ units have been deployed to the site to check if there are more attackers.”

The explosion happened in the early evening when traffic is normally heavy.

The last assault on a foreign compound was in late November when a Taliban-claimed vehicle bomb exploded outside the compound of British security firm G4S, killing at least 10 people.

Five G4S employees were among the dead.

That was followed by a suicide and gun attack on a government compound in Kabul on December 24 that killed at least 43 people, making it one of the deadliest assaults on the city last year.

The latest bombing comes as US peace envoy Zalmay Khalilzad visits the region for meetings aimed at bringing an end to the 17-year war in Afghanistan, which by some estimates was the world’s deadliest conflict zone in 2018.

Khalilzad, who met Taliban representatives last month in Abu Dhabi, is travelling to Afghanistan as well as China, India and Pakistan on the trip lasting through January 21.

The leaking of US President Donald Trump’s plan to slash troop numbers in Afghanistan, however, has threatened to derail those efforts.

The recent flurry of activity to get the Taliban to the negotiating table has caused disquiet in Afghanistan, with the government feeling sidelined from the discussions.

The Taliban has repeatedly refused to talk to Kabul, which it sees as a US puppet and ineffective.

AFP

20 Afghan Forces Killed As Taliban Attacks Cities

 

Taliban fighters killed more than 20 Afghan security forces in simultaneous raids on a provincial capital and district in northern Afghanistan, an official said Tuesday, as the city braced for further violence.

Hundreds of militants were outside Sar-e-Pul city, which provincial governor spokesman Zabihullah Amani said was at risk of falling to the Taliban if reinforcements were not sent.

The Taliban have stepped up attacks on security forces across the country, slaughtering police and soldiers in record numbers, as the threat of a US drawdown complicates American-led efforts to end the 17-year conflict.

“The enemy is still amassing forces outside the city,” Amani told AFP.

“We have deployed all the forces available in the city, but no reinforcements have arrived from outside so far.

“The people inside the city are very worried.”

READ ALSO: Year In Review: From Killings To Kidnappings, 2018 Screamed For Security

Taliban fighters launched the attacks on Sar-e-Pul and neighboring Sayad district on Monday night, which Amani said were aimed at seizing control of several oil wells on the outskirts of the city.

At least 21 local forces, including police and intelligence, were killed and another 23 wounded in the attacks, Amani said.

“They have attacked the city many times in the past, but this time the threat is more serious,” he said.

A security official, who spoke to AFP on the condition of anonymity, put the death toll slightly lower at between 15 and 20 members of local forces.

Kabul-based interior ministry deputy spokesman Nasrat Rahimi confirmed there had been casualties, but would not provide details.

He said reinforcements had been deployed to Sar-e-Pul and dismissed concerns that the provincial capital was at risk of falling to the insurgents.

The Taliban confirmed the attacks, saying their fighters had captured three checkpoints and killed or wounded 50 members of the security forces.

Afghanistan’s largest militant group made significant territorial gains in 2018, including overrunning Ghazni city — a few hours’ drive from Kabul — which they held for several days before being pushed back with the help of US airpower.

At the time, officials said Ghazni remained in government hands. But residents told AFP that the insurgents were in the streets, burning buildings and targeting civilians.

The Taliban’s increased aggression on the battlefield coincided with a flurry of diplomatic efforts aimed at bringing the group to the negotiating table.

In recent days, Taliban representatives have met with Iran, as Tehran makes a more concerted and open push for peace ahead of a possible US drawdown.

The Taliban delegation discussed with Iran “the post-occupation situation, restoration of peace and security in Afghanistan and the region”, the militants said in a statement posted on social media and emailed to journalists on Tuesday.

It signals growing confidence among the Taliban that US troops will pull out of Afghanistan, after US officials last month told various media outlets that President Donald Trump had decided to slash the number of boots on the ground.

43 Killed, Dozens Injured As Gunmen Attack Government Compound In Kabul

 

About 43 people have been killed following an hours-long gun and bomb attack on a Kabul government compound.

Officials said Tuesday that the attack which is one of the deadliest assaults on the Afghan capital this year has left dozens injured.

No militant group has claimed responsibility for the raid, which caps a bloody year for Afghanistan as long-suffering civilians and security forces are slaughtered in record numbers.

Taliban spokesman Zabiullah Mujahid told AFP the attack had “nothing to do with the militants”.

Another 27 people were wounded in Monday’s massacre on a site where the Ministry of Public Works and an office that handles pensions and benefits for war veterans are located, health ministry spokesman Waheed Majroh said.

Gunmen stormed the compound mid-afternoon after detonating two car bombs at the main entrance, which is opposite residential apartment blocks.

As they entered two buildings belonging to the Ministry of Public Works and the organisation responsible for supporting war veterans and their families, terrified workers ran for their lives. Some jumped from windows several floors up to escape the militants.

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The blasts may have been decoys, according to witnesses who told AFP they saw several militants enter the compound through a back gate.

Hundreds were trapped inside for hours as heavily armed security forces swarmed the area, engaging the attackers in a fierce gun battle punctuated by multiple explosions.

Public works ministry employee Amdullah Barekzai hid under his desk for five hours, listening to gunfire and blasts inside his building.

“When the security forces took us from the office, I saw many bodies covered in blood, lying in the corridors,” Barekzai told AFP.

At least four militants were killed and more than 350 people freed, officials said. Most of the dead and wounded were civilians, who have borne the brunt of the 17-year war.

“It was a barbaric attack against humanity,” interior ministry spokesman Najib Danish told reporters.

– Taliban blamed –
It was the deadliest assault in the Afghan capital since a suicide bomber blew himself up in the middle of a religious gathering last month, killing at least 55 people.

President Ashraf Ghani, whose government has been skewered over its security failures, said “terrorists attack civilian targets to hide their defeat on the battleground”.

Afghanistan’s de facto prime minister Abdullah Abdullah also sounded a defiant note as he blamed the Taliban for the attack.

“Every attack they carry out against our people, our resolve is further strengthened to eliminate them,” he said.

But their statements belie the grim reality on the battlefield where the Taliban have the upper hand.

Afghanistan’s largest militant group has made significant territorial gains this year as its fighters inflict record casualties on government forces.

– US staying the course? –
The raid followed a tumultuous few days in Afghanistan where officials are reeling from US President Donald Trump’s plan to slash troop numbers, which many fear could harm efforts to end the conflict with the Taliban.

It also comes after a major security shake-up in Kabul that has placed staunch anti-Taliban and -Pakistan veterans in charge of the police and military.

While there has been no official announcement of a US drawdown, the mere suggestion of the United States reducing its military presence has rattled the Afghan capital and potentially undermined peace efforts.

General Scott Miller, the top US and NATO commander in Afghanistan, said Sunday he had not received orders to pull forces out of the country.

Trump’s decision apparently came Tuesday as US peace envoy Zalmay Khalilzad met with the Taliban in Abu Dhabi, part of efforts to bring the militants to the negotiating table with Kabul.

Many Afghans are worried that Ghani’s fragile unity government would collapse if US troops pulled out, enabling the Taliban to sweep back into power and potentially sparking another bloody civil war.

At Least 50 Killed In Attack On Kabul Religious Gathering

Relatives of blast victims gather outside a hospital of the Italian aid organisation ‘Emergency’ in Kabul on November 20, 2018, following a blast at a meeting of top clerics in the Afghan capital.
At least 40 people were killed in an explosion at a meeting of top clerics in Kabul on November 20, officials said, in one of the deadliest attacks to strike the Afghan capital in months.

 

At least 50 people were killed in a suicide attack on a religious celebration in Kabul on Tuesday, officials said, in one of the deadliest assaults to strike Afghanistan this year.

It follows a wave of bloody violence across the war-torn country in recent weeks that has killed hundreds of people as militants step up assaults amid a flurry of diplomatic efforts to end the 17-year conflict.

 

 

At least 72 people were wounded in the blast, health ministry spokesman Wahid Majroh said, which targeted religious scholars and leaders inside a wedding hall where hundreds had gathered to mark the Prophet Mohammad’s birthday — one of the holiest days in the Islamic calendar.

Religious studies lecturer Mohammad Hanif said verses of the Koran were being recited when there was a deafening explosion followed by “chaos” inside the packed hall.

“More than 60 or 70 people were martyred,” Hanif, 31, told AFP outside a trauma facility run by Italian NGO Emergency. He escaped unhurt.

“They suffered burns, everyone in the halls was screaming for help.”

A photo posted on WhatsApp purportedly of the function room showed blood-splattered bodies, some with clothes partially ripped off by the force of the blast, overturned chairs and broken glass strewn over the floor.

President Ashraf Ghani declared Wednesday a national day of mourning for the victims of the attack, which he described in a statement as an “unforgivable crime”.

 

Afghan medical staff members with stretchers wait outside a hospital of the Italian aid organisation ‘Emergency’ in Kabul on November 12, 2018. At least three people were killed when a suicide attacker blew himself up in Kabul on November 12, close to where scores of Afghans had been protesting against Taliban attacks on the minority Hazara ethnic group.
WAKIL KOHSAR / AFP

 

A manager of the multi-storey Uranus Wedding Palace, which also hosts political and religious functions, told AFP the suicide bomber blew himself up in the middle of the gathering of around 1,000 people.

“There are a lot of casualties — I myself have counted 30 casualties,” he told AFP on condition of anonymity.

The aid organisation Emergency said on Twitter 33 wounded and seven dead had been taken to its hospital in Kabul.

There was no immediate claim of responsibility for the blast, but the Islamic State group has claimed most recent suicide attacks in Kabul, which has become the most dangerous place in the country for civilians.

The Taliban condemned the attack in a WhatsApp message.

More bloodshed

It was the bloodiest assault in the Afghan capital since a twin bomb attack on a wrestling club in September that killed at least 26 people, and one of the deadliest in the country this year.

A suicide attack on Afghans protesting the appointment of a local police chief in the eastern province of Nangarhar in September killed at least 68 people and wounded another 165. No group claimed that explosion.

In January an ambulance packed with explosives detonated in a crowded street in the heart of Kabul, killing more than 100 people, mostly civilians. The attack was claimed by the Taliban.

Last month’s parliamentary elections sparked a wave of deadly violence across the country, with hundreds killed or wounded in poll-related attacks.

It is not the first time religious scholars have been targeted by militants in the Islamic country.

In June a suicide bomber struck near a gathering of clerics in Kabul, about an hour after the group had proclaimed such attacks a sin.

The latest attack comes as the Taliban intensifies pressure on Afghan security forces, even as the international community ramps up efforts to convince the group to engage in peace talks.

US envoy Zalmay Khalilzad expressed hopes in Kabul on Sunday that a peace deal to end the war could be struck before the Afghan presidential election, scheduled for April.

His comments underscore an apparent increasing sense of urgency in the White House and among American diplomats for a peace deal to be done quickly.