KABUL/ ISLAMABAD/ THE HAGUE: At least 30 people were killed and hundreds wounded when a Taliban truck bomb tore through central Kabul Tuesday, triggering a fierce firefight, a week after the insurgents launched their annual spring offensive.
The Taliban claimed responsibility for the attack in a densely crowded neighbourhood, which sent clouds of acrid smoke billowing into the sky and rattled windows several kilometres away.
The brazen assault near the defence ministry marks the first major Taliban attack in the Afghan capital since the insurgents announced the start of this year's fighting season.
"One of the suicide attackers blew up an explosives-laden truck in a public parking lot next to a government building," Kabul police chief Abdul Rahman Rahimi told reporters.
Blast near Pakistan consulate building in eastern Afghan city
"The second attacker engaged security forces in a gunbattle before being gunned down."
Interior ministry spokesperson Sediq Sediqqi said 30 people, including women and children, were killed in the attack and warned that the toll could rise further.
He added that more than 320 were wounded, with many of them battling for their lives in hospital.
The pitched firefight appeared to die down several hours after the powerful explosion, but some security officials expressed concern that other bombers may still be on the loose.
"I saw wounded people lying on the road and screaming helplessly," said Sadiqullah, who runs a tea stall near the building which was attacked.
"It was devastating. We are fed up with such attacks. How long must ordinary civilians suffer like this?"
Afghan Taliban announce start of 'spring offensive'
The interior ministry said hundreds of kilograms of explosives were used in the bombing, the deadliest so far this year in the Afghan capital.
Taliban spokesperson Zabihullah Mujahid claimed their fighters had managed to enter the offices of the National Directorate of Security, the main spy agency.
"Martyrdom attacks were launched in Kabul's administration's worst brutal and inhuman intelligence organ at 9am," Mujahid said in a statement.
He said the attack was part of the Taliban’s Spring Offensive.
Sediqqi conceded that one of the attackers managed to breach the compound, a government office responsible for providing security to government VIPs, but said he was gunned down after a firefight.
"This attack shows the devastation caused by the use of explosive devices in urban areas and once more demonstrates complete disregard for the lives of Afghan civilians," the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan said.
"The use of explosives in populated areas, in circumstances almost certain to cause immense suffering to civilians, may amount to war crimes."
The Taliban on Tuesday last week announced the start of their spring offensive even as the government tries to bring them back to the negotiating table to end the drawn-out conflict.
The insurgents warned they would "employ large-scale attacks on enemy positions across the country" during the offensive dubbed Operation Omari in honour of the movement's late founder Mullah Omar, whose death was announced last year.
The Taliban began the fighting season last week by targeting the northern city of Kunduz, which they briefly captured last year in a stunning setback for Afghan forces.
But officials said Afghan security forces drove Taliban fighters back from the city on Friday.
The annual spring offensive normally marks the start of the "fighting season", though this past winter the lull was shorter and rebels continued to battle government forces, albeit with less intensity.
The Taliban's resurgence has raised serious questions about Afghan forces' capacity to hold their own. NATO estimates that a staggering 5,500 troops were killed last year.
Peace talks which began last summer were abruptly halted after it was revealed that Mullah Omar had been dead for two years, a disclosure which sparked infighting in the insurgents' ranks.
A four-country group comprising Afghanistan, the United States, China and Pakistan has been holding meetings since January aimed at jump-starting negotiations, though their efforts have so far been in vain.
PM condemns attack
Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif has condemned the terrorist attack in Kabul, Express News reported.
In a message to Afghan President Ashraf Ghani, the premier extended condolences on the lives lost and condemned the act of terror in strongest terms.
Nawaz termed terrorism and extremism a threat for both Pakistan and Afghanistan and peace and stability in the respective societies.
It is, therefore, needed to launch joint efforts to eliminate the menace, the premier added.
Earlier during the day, the foreign ministry condemned the attack in a statement.
“We extend our heartfelt sympathies and condolences to those who have lost their loved ones and pray for an early recovery of the injured,” the spokesperson said.
The spokesperson said Pakistan condemned terrorism in all its forms and manifestations and expressed solidarity with the government and people of Afghanistan.
Ghani condemns blast
"(We) condemn in the strongest terms the terrorist attack in Puli Mahmood Khan neighbourhood of Kabul, as a result of which many of our countrymen were martyred and wounded," Ghani said in a statement.
"Such cowardly terrorist attacks will not weaken the will and determination of Afghan security forces to fight against terrorism."
UN chief condemns Taliban attack
UN chief Ban Ki-moon also condemned the Taliban suicide attack.
"I would like to express my deepest condolences for the victims and their families and friends," the UN secretary general said at a press conference during a visit to The Hague.
"I condemn strongly these terrorist attacks," he said, adding "there's no justification whatsoever (for) attacking civilian people as well as security people."
Abduallah Abdullah postpones Pakistan visit
Afghanistan’s Chief Executive Dr Abdullah Abdullah postponed his visit to Pakistan after the suicide attack.
The prime minister had invited Dr Abdullah to visit Pakistan in the first week of May.
“After initial evidence of today's suicide attack in Kabul, CE Dr Abdullah decided to postpone his upcoming official visit to Pakistan,” Media Office of the Chief Executive of Afghanistan said.
“This visit was planned to take place by the official invitation of the Pakistan Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif on 2nd and 3rd of May,” the office said on its Twitter.