KABUL (Reuters) – Afghan security forces killed five Taliban gunmen who stormed a building in Kabul on Monday after detonating a bomb-laden truck that wounded at least 105 people, including 51 children, officials said.
The gun battle lasted more than seven hours, a security official said, adding that the Taliban fighters in the under-construction building fired at Afghan forces who rushed to the blast site to evacuate the wounded.
“Clashes ended with the death of all five attackers,” said interior ministry spokesman Nasrat Rahimi, adding that more than 210 people had been rescued during the operation.
The Taliban claimed responsibility for the attack.
“The target was the defense ministry’s technical installation,” the Islamist militants’ spokesman, Zabihullah Mujahid, said in a statement.
Afghan security officials said the truck loaded with explosives was detonated near the ministry’s engineering and logistics department at rush hour.
About 100 wounded people were taken to hospital, said health ministry spokesman Wahidullah Mayar, but there was no immediate word of fatalities.
Fifty-one children in two schools near the blast site were hurt by flying shards of glass, said Nooria Nazhat, a spokeswoman of the education ministry.
“These children were in the classrooms when the blast shattered the glass windows. All injured children were rushed out of their schools,” said Nazhat.
A security guard at Shamshad TV, a Pashto-language media organization, was killed and several employees hurt in their office near the blast site, said director Abid Ehsas.
The blast sent a plume of black smoke rising over the city and shook buildings.
The area has a cluster of military and government buildings, as well as an office of the Afghan Football Federation, whose chief, Yosuf Kargar, was among several members injured, according to spokesman Shafi Shadab.
Afghan President Ashraf Ghani condemned the Taliban for attacking civilians, calling it a crime against humanity.
The attack comes as U.S. special peace envoy for Afghanistan Zalmay Khalilzad holds a seventh round of peace talks with the Taliban in Qatar, aimed at bringing an end to the 18-year war in Afghanistan.
The talks, described by one U.S. official as a “make-or-break moment”, have focused on issues ranging from counter-terrorism and withdrawal of foreign troops to an intra-Afghan dialogue and a comprehensive ceasefire.
Two sources at the peace talks said direct negotiations between the warring sides was unlikely to go beyond Monday, but there was no official statement about the suspension of the ongoing talks.
“The latest attack by the Taliban has changed the entire context of our meeting, unease has crept in,” said an official present in the room where negotiations are underway in Doha.
Sohail Shaheen, spokesman for the Taliban political office in Doha, said the group’s key concern was to make sure a timeline for a foreign troop pullout is announced.
Taliban officials have previously said they want all foreign troops withdrawn before they hold talks with the Afghan government or declare a ceasefire.
About 20,000 foreign troops, most of them American, are in Afghanistan as part of a U.S.-led NATO mission to train, assist and advise Afghan forces. Some U.S. forces carry out counter-terrorism operations.
Less than a week ago, U.S. secretary of state Mike Pompeo paid a short visit to Kabul and said the Trump administration was hopeful that a peace deal with the Taliban was achievable by Sept. 1.
Despite peace talks gaining momentum, fighting between the Taliban and Afghan forces who are backed by the foreign troops, has raged across Afghanistan.
The ministry of defense said on Monday 67 insurgents were killed in 11 provinces in the last 24 hours. The Taliban said their fighters had conducted 52 operations against Afghan forces in which more than 170 people were killed.
Both side accuse each other of exaggerating casualty figures to boost the morale of their fighters.
Additional reporting, writing by Rupam Jain; Editing by Clarence Fernandez and Darren Schuettler