A powerful bomb hidden in a sewage tanker exploded in the morning rush hour in the center of the Afghan capital on Wednesday, police said, killing at least 90 people, wounding hundreds and damaging embassy buildings.
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A public health official said at least 90 people had been killed and more than 400 wounded. The victims appear mainly to have been Afghan civilians. Video shot at the scene showed burning debris, crumbled walls and buildings and destroyed cars, many with dead or injured people inside.
The bomb, one of the deadliest in Kabul and coming at the start of the holy month of Ramadan, exploded close to the fortified entrance to the German embassy, killing a security guard and wounding some staff, German Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel said on Twitter.
"The attack took place very close to the German embassy. It hit civilians and those who are in Afghanistan to work for a better future for the country with the people there. It's especially contemptible that these people were the target," Gabriel said. "Such attacks do not change our resolve in continuing to support the Afghan government in the stabilization of the country," he said.
Germany will not carry out flights deporting rejected asylum seekers to Afghanistan in the next few days, a German official confirmed after the blast.
Basir Mujahid, a spokesman for city police, said the explosives were hidden in a sewage tanker but suggested that the German Embassy might not have been the target of the blast which sent clouds of black smoke into the sky near the presidential palace.
"There are several other important compounds and offices near there too," he told Reuters.
The blast, which shattered windows and blew doors off their hinges in houses hundreds of meters away, was unusually powerful. The NATO-led Resolute Support mission in Kabul said Afghan security forces had prevented the vehicle from entering the heavily protected Green Zone that houses many foreign embassies as well as its headquarters, suggesting it may not have reached its intended target.
No group immediately claimed responsibility for the blast. Both the Taliban and the Islamic State group have staged large-scale attacks in the Afghan capital in the past.
The neighborhood is considered Kabul's safest area, with foreign embassies protected by dozens of 10-foot-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. The Chinese, Turkish and Iranian embassies are also located there.
The French, Turkish and Chinese embassies were among those damaged, the three countries said, adding there were no immediate signs of injuries among their diplomats. The BBC said one of its drivers, an Afghan, was killed driving journalists to work. Four journalists were wounded and treated in hospital.
The explosion took place at the peak of Kabul's rush hour when roads are packed with worktime commuters. The blast was so heavy that more than 30 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 Najib Danish, deputy spokesman for the Interior Ministry.
At the Wazir Akbar Khan hospital a few blocks away, there were scenes of chaos as ambulances brought in wounded and frantic relatives scanned casualty lists and questioned hospital staff for news.
"It felt like an earthquake," said 21-year-old Mohammad Hassan, describing the moment the blast struck the bank where he was working. His head wound had been bandaged but blood still soaked his white dress shirt.
Shortly after the explosion, all roads in Wazir Akbar Khan were blocked off by Afghan security forces and helicopters were deployed over the neighborhood.
Taliban denies responsibility
Another lightly wounded victim, Nabib Ahmad, 27, said there was widespread destruction and confusion.
"I couldn't think clearly, there was a mess everywhere," he said.
Later, frenzy broke out outside the hospital as ambulances and police trucks began bringing in the bodies of those killed. Some bodies were burned or destroyed beyond recognition.
India and Pakistan condemned the blast.
"India stands with Afghanistan in fighting all types of terrorism. Forces supporting terrorism need to be defeated," Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi said in a tweet. India said its embassy staff were safe.
The Taliban denied responsibility and said they condemned attacks that have no legitimate target and killed civilians. Islamic State, the other main militant group active in Afghanistan, has carried out high profile attacks in Kabul, including an attack on a military hospital in March that killed more than 50 people.
Wednesday's attack provided another clear demonstration that Ramadan, which began at the weekend, would provide little respite from the violence across Afghanistan.
The Taliban have been stepping up their push to defeat the U.S.-backed government and reimpose Islamic law after their 2001 ouster in a Washington-backed invasion.
Since most international troops withdrew at the end of 2014, the Taliban have gained ground and now control or contest about 40 percent of the country, according to U.S. estimates, though President Ashraf Ghani's government holds all provincial centres.
U.S. President Donald Trump is due to decide soon on a recommendation to send 3,000 to 5,000 more troops to bolster the small NATO training force and U.S. counter-terrorism mission now totalling just over 10,000.
The commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan, General John Nicholson, told a congressional hearing this year that he needed several thousand more troops to help Afghan forces break a "stalemate" with the Taliban.
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 At least 80 people were killed and 350 wounded in Kabul on Wednesday when a powerful vehicle-borne bomb exploded in the middle of the Afghan capital, a public health official said.