At least 24 people were killed and 42 wounded Monday after a Taliban-claimed car bomb struck a bus carrying government employees through a Shiite neighbourhood in Kabul, raising fears of sectarian violence in the Afghan capital.
The bus was carrying employees of the ministry of mines, passing from western Kabul to the downtown ministry during rush hour, interior ministry spokesman Najib Danish told AFP.
It was struck by the car bomb as it passed through a busy area of the capital that is home to many Shiite Hazaras, a persecuted ethnic minority. The area is also near the home of prominent politician and former warlord Mohammad Mohaqeq.
An AFP photographer at the scene saw multiple bodies and wounded people in the street, surrounded by shattered glass as security forces cordoned off the area.
The bus’s charred remains were left smoking in the middle of the road as the wounded were rushed to hospitals in ambulances as well as private cars and taxis.
“It was a huge explosion, my house nearly collapsed, it broke all our windows and doors,” a neighbourhood resident who gave his name as Mostafa told AFP.
He rushed to the street which, he said, was “filled with human flesh and blood”.
“It was horrible,” said shopkeeper Momin. “For at least ten minutes we didn’t know what had happened. It almost destroyed my shop.
“It is a crowded area — many of my friends and other shopkeepers are either killed or wounded.”
The Taliban claimed responsibility for the blast, which came just before 7am (0230 GMT). The militant group has ramped up attacks across Afghanistan in recent days, and captured a new district in Ghor province over the weekend.
The insurgents rarely claim attacks with high civilian casualties but do frequently target government employees. A spokesman claimed on the group’s Twitter account that the bus had been carrying employees of Afghanistan’s intelligence agency.
– Demonstration cancelled –
Monday’s attack came as Kabul’s Hazara community had planned to hold a demonstration in the same neighbourhood to mark the one-year anniversary of twin bombings that killed 84 people, mostly members of the ethnic minority.
But they had agreed to postpone the demonstration over security fears and after meeting with President Ashraf Ghani on Sunday, a presidential statement said.
The bombings on July 23, 2016 were claimed by the Islamic State group, its first significant assault in the heart of the Afghan capital.
The Taliban have carried out sectarian attacks in the past, though they have been rare in Sunni-majority Afghanistan throughout its decades of war.
The rise of IS, which has frequently targeted Shiites, has fuelled the spectre of more such assaults, with fears Monday that Hazaras had been the target of the car bomb rather than the government employees, whose ethnicity was not immediately clear.
Others suggested the politician Mohammad Mohaqeq could have been the target. Omid Maisom Mohaqiq, a spokesman for Mohaqeq, said the bomb had detonated near a checkpoint approaching the politician’s house.
Kabul is regularly rocked by suicide bombs and assaults. A recent UN report showed that attacks on the capital accounted for nearly one-fifth of all civilian Afghan casualties in the first half of 2017.
Many died in a single devastating attack in late May when a truck bomb exploded, also during the morning Kabul rush hour, killing more than 150 people and injuring hundreds.
The UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) put the civilian death toll at 92, saying it was the deadliest incident to hit the country since 2001.
The bloody toll for the first six months of 2017 has unsettled the government and put increasing pressure on President Ghani, who condemned Monday’s attack.
Protests and deadly street clashes hit Kabul in the wake of the May bomb as people incensed by security failures called for his government’s resignation.
The UNAMA report also said that nearly half of Afghanistan’s 34 provinces have seen an increase in civilian deaths in the first six months of the year, mainly due to the rise in attacks by anti-government forces.
NATO’s combat mission in Afghanistan ended three years ago, handing sole responsibility to the country’s security forces, which have also suffered spiralling casualties as they try to beat back the resurgent Taliban and contain the growing IS threat.