A massive explosion that sent a plume of smoke over Kabul rocked a highly secure diplomatic area of the Afghan capital on Wednesday morning, killing 80 people, wounding as many as 350, and leaving mayhem and destruction.
The target of the attack — which officials said was a suicide car bombing — was not immediately known, but Ismail Kawasi, spokesperson of the Public Health Ministry, said most of the casualties were civilians, including women and children.
It was one of the worst attacks Kabul has seen since the drawdown of foreign forces at the end of 2014.
Associated Press images from the scene showed the German Embassy and several other embassies located in the area heavily damaged in the explosion. It wasn’t known if any foreign diplomats were among the casualties, but Germany and Pakistan said some of their embassy employees and staff were hurt in the explosion.
Explosion hit rush hour
The explosion took place at the peak of Kabul’s rush hour when roads are packed with commuters. It went off close to a busy intersection in the Wazir Akbar Khan district, said Najib Danish, deputy spokesperson for the Interior Ministry.
The neighbourhood is considered Kabul’s safest area, with foreign embassies protected by dozens of three-metre-high blast walls and government offices, guarded by police and national security forces. The German Embassy, the Foreign Ministry and the Presidential Palace are all in the area, as are the British and the Canadian embassies, and the Chinese, Turkish and Iranian embassies.
The crater left by the explosion was about 4½ metres wide and three metres deep, freelance reporter Jennifer Glasse told CBC News.
“The bomb went off just outside of the headquarters of a major cellphone company and a popular television station,” she said. “There is a hotel nearby. All of the windows were blown out.”
Local TV footage showed shocked residents soaked in blood stumbling about, then being ferried away to hospitals. Passersby stopped and helped the wounded into their private cars. Others congregated outside the nearby Italian-run Emergency Hospital.
No group immediately claimed responsibility for the blast. Both the Taliban and the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria group have staged large-scale attacks in the Afghan capital in the past.
The Taliban later issued a statement denying any involvement in the bombing and condemning all attacks against civilians. Zabihullah Mujahid, spokesman for the Taliban, said Wednesday’s explosion had “nothing to do with the Mujahedeen of Islamic Emirate,” as the Taliban call themselves.
A statement from the Ministry of Interior Affairs says it “condemns in the strongest terms the terrorist attack” that killed so many.
“These heinous acts go against the values of humanity as well values of peaceful Afghans,” the statement added. “These attacks also demonstrate the extreme level of atrocity by terrorists against innocent civilians.”
Afghan President Ashraf Ghani strongly condemned the attack, which came just days into the Muslim holy month of Ramadan. A statement from his office quoted Ghani as saying that “the terrorists, even in the holy month of Ramadan, the month of goodness, blessing and prayer, are not stopping the killing of our innocent people.”
Pakistan said the “terrorist attack in Kabul this morning that has caused loss of precious human lives and injuries to many.” Pakistan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs said “the blast has caused damage to the residences of some Pakistani diplomats and staff, living in the close vicinity, and inflicted minor injuries to some.”
China’s Foreign Ministry said its Kabul Embassy was partly damaged, but that all staff were “safe and sound” and there had been no reports of injured Chinese citizens.
Japan’s Foreign Ministry says two of its embassy employees, both Japanese nationals, were slightly injured in the bombing in Kabul earlier in the day. The ministry said the injured were inside the embassy complex, located near the site of the bombing. It says embassy officials also reported some minor damage to the building, such as broken windows but that there are no other reports of injuries or damage involving Japanese nationals in Kabul.
Turkey’s Foreign Ministry said its buildings were damaged but no embassy employees were harmed. The ministry said Turkey would continue to stand by Afghanistan in the fight against terrorism.
India reported “some damage to windows” at the Indian Embassy building, located next to the German, Iranian and British embassies.
50 vehicles damaged or destroyed
The Foreign Ministry in Berlin said it had no immediate information on possible casualties or damage to the German Embassy but was working on trying to get more details from Afghanistan.
Germany has had troops in Afghanistan for 15 years, primarily concentrated in the north in and around Mazar-E-Sharif. They’re currently one of the biggest contributors to the NATO-led Resolute Support mission with around 980 soldiers on the ground to support and train Afghan security forces.
Wednesday’s explosion was so heavy that more than 50 vehicles were either destroyed or damaged at the site of the attack. “We don’t know at this moment what was the target of the attack,” said Danish.
Residents described a mushroom cloud over Kabul and windows were shattered in shops, restaurants and other buildings up to a kilometre from the blast site.
“There are a large number of casualties, but I don’t know how many people are killed or wounded,” said an eyewitness, Gul Rahim.
Kawasi, the health official, said the wounded were admitted to different Kabul hospitals.
Shortly after the explosion, all roads in Wazir Akbar Khan were blocked off by Afghan security forces and helicopters were deployed over the neighbourhood.
Last month, the Afghan Taliban announced the beginning of their spring offensive, promising to build their political base in the country while focusing military assaults on the international coalition and Afghan security forces.
U.S. and Afghan forces have been battling the Taliban insurgency for more than 15 years. The United States now has more than 8,000 troops in Afghanistan, training local forces and conducting counterterrorism operations. In the past year, they have largely concentrated on thwarting a surge of attacks by the Taliban, who have captured key districts, such as Helmand province, which U.S. and British troops had fought bitterly to return to the government.