KABUL: At least 80 people were killed and hundreds wounded on Wednesday when a massive truck bomb ripped through Kabul’s diplomatic quarter, bringing carnage to the streets of the Afghan capital and blowing out windows several miles away.
Bodies littered the scene and a huge cloud of smoke rose from the highly-fortified area which houses foreign embassies, after the rush-hour attack tore a massive crater in the ground just days into the Muslim holy fasting month of Ramadan.
No group has so far claimed the powerful blast, which a Western diplomatic source said was caused by 1,500 kilogrammes of explosives packed inside a water tanker.
Rescue workers were digging bodies from the rubble hours after the explosion as anguished residents struggled to get through security cordons to search for missing relatives. Dozens of damaged cars choked the roads as wounded survivors and panicked schoolgirls sought safety.
It was not immediately clear what the target was. But the attack suggests a major security failure and underscores spiralling insecurity in Afghanistan, where the NATO-backed military, beset by soaring casualties and desertions, is struggling to beat back insurgents.
Over a third of the country is outside government control.
“Unfortunately the toll has reached 80 martyred (killed) and over 300 wounded, including many women and children,” said health ministry spokesman Waheed Majroh, adding the figures would continue to climb as more bodies are pulled from the debris.
President Ashraf Ghani slammed the attack as a “war crime”.
The Taliban — currently in the midst of their annual “spring offensive” — tweeted that they were not involved and “strongly condemn” the blast. The insurgent group rarely claims responsibility for attacks that kill large numbers of civilians.
The Islamic State group has claimed responsibility for several recent bombings in the Afghan capital, including a powerful blast targeting a NATO convoy that killed eight people earlier this month.
The sound of the bomb, which went off near Kabul’s busy Zanbaq Square, reverberated across the Afghan capital, with residents comparing it to an earthquake. Most victims appear to be civilians.
“The vigilance and courage of Afghan security forces prevented the VBIED (vehicle-borne improvised explosive device) from gaining entry to the Green Zone, but the explosion caused civilian casualties,” NATO said in a statement.
The BBC said its Afghan driver Mohammed Nazir was killed and four of their journalists wounded. Local TV channel Tolo TV also tweeted that a staff member Aziz Navin was killed.
The explosion damaged several embassies in the area, which houses diplomatic and government buildings and is a maze of concrete blast walls, vehicle barriers and armed security guards.
German Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel said the “despicable” attack killed an Afghan guard from the German embassy, and added that some employees had been injured, though he did not give further details.
He said the bomb had gone off “in the immediate vicinity” of the German embassy.
France, India, Turkey, Japan, the United Arab Emirates and Bulgaria similarly reported damage to their embassies, including shattered windows, as the blast drew an avalanche of international condemnation.
US ambassador to Afghanistan Hugo Llorens issued a scathing statement condemning the “complete disregard for human life”, saying those behind the attack deserved our “utter scorn”.
Amnesty International said the attack underscores the fact that the conflict in Afghanistan is “dangerously widening in a way that should alarm the international community”.
Germany was forced to postpone a scheduled deportation flight of rejected Afghan asylum-seekers in the wake of the attack. The European nation has drawn criticism for sending back Afghans to an increasingly dangerous country.
Wednesday’s blast was the latest in a string of attacks in Kabul. The province surrounding the capital had the highest number of casualties in the country in the first three months of 2017 due to multiple attacks in the city, with civilians bearing the brunt of the violence.
Pentagon chief Jim Mattis has warned of “another tough year” for both foreign troops and local forces in Afghanistan.
Afghan troops are backed by US and NATO forces, and the Pentagon has reportedly asked the White House to send thousands more soldiers to break the deadlock in the battle against the Taliban.
US troops in Afghanistan number about 8,400 now, and there are another 5,000 from NATO allies. They mainly serve in an advisory capacity — a far cry from the US presence of more than 100,000 six years ago.