KABUL – A Taliban truck bombing killed at least 20 people and wounded 90 when a suicide attacker detonated his explosive-laden vehicle near an Afghan hospital on Thursday amid escalating violence across the election-bound country after the collapse of peace talks between the United States and militants earlier this month.
The Taliban bombing in the city of Qalat, the capital of Zabul province in southern Afghanistan, came hours after several civilians were said to have been killed in a US aerial strike in volatile Nangarhar province.
Zabul governor’s spokesperson Gul Islam Seyal told EFE that the casualties in the attack near the Qalat hospital were expected to rise as rescuers were still searching under the rubble from the explosion.
He said that so far 20 people, mostly civilians, were confirmed dead and 90 were wounded.
Nearly all of the victims were civilians that included women and children.
Seyal said the explosion was so “powerful” that it “badly destroyed the hospital building and several nearby houses.”
He said most of the victims were “hospital health workers, patients, and civilians from nearby houses.”
The injured were evacuated to other Qalat hospitals and the neighboring city of Kandahar.
President Ashraf Ghani strongly condemned the blast, saying the Taliban militants “have lost the ability to face the Afghan security forces on frontlines,” and were, therefore, perpetrating “heinous attacks in civilian-populated areas.”
Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid claimed responsibility for the attack and said the target was a nearby building that houses the government’s intelligence department, the National Security Directorate.
“Due to the attack, most of the buildings and facilities (were) destroyed. A big number (of) intelligence officers, soldiers and employees were killed and injured,” Mujahid said in a statement.
In another incident on Thursday, at least 25 villagers were killed and over 30 injured in US airstrikes in the remote eastern Nangarhar province, a stronghold for both Taliban and Islamic State militants.
But the US military said the claim of civilian deaths in Nangarhar was a “ploy” to distract from the mayhem at the Qalat hospital.
Officials in Nangarhar said the aerial strike was carried out around 1:30 am Thursday in Wazir-Tangi, a highly-volatile and militant-controlled area of Khogyani district.
“According to information we have received from the sources in the area, 25 people have been martyred and another over 30 people injured last night,” Ajmal Umar, a provincial council member, told EFE.
He said the victims were “poor villagers” who had gone to collect black pine-nuts on mountain slopes.
Zabihullah Zmarai, another council member, confirmed the incident to EFE, saying the victims were “local poor farmers and villagers, who were in the mountains to harvest black pine nuts but were bombed.”
Nangarhar governor spokesperson, Attaullah Khogyanai, told EFE that the airstrikes targeted the civilians “camping for pine-nut harvest.”
“So far nine bodies and four injured (have been) brought to a provincial hospital,” Khogyanai said.
US forces spokesperson Colonel Sonny Leggett told EFE in a statement that “a precision strike” was carried out against Islamic State militants.
“We are fighting in a complex environment against those who intentionally kill and hide behind civilians, as well as use dishonest claims of non-combatant casualties as propaganda weapons,” Legget said.
“We are aware of allegations of the death of non-combatants and are working with local officials to determine the facts to ensure this is not a ploy to deflect attention from the civilians murdered by the Taliban at a hospital in Zabul earlier today.”
Violence has spiked across Afghanistan ahead of the presidential election set for Sept. 28 and after US President Donald Trump abruptly ended talks with the Taliban this month.
On Wednesday, at least seven people were killed and several injured in a suicide bomb and gun attack targeting a government office complex in the city of Jalalabad in eastern Nangarhar province.
Two separate Taliban attacks on Tuesday killed at least 48 people when militants hit President Asharaf Ghani’s election rally in Parwan province, north of Kabul, and targeted the Afghan defense ministry building and the US embassy in the capital city itself.
Militants have vowed that they would target election campaigns, Afghan government offices, and foreign forces to dissuade people from participating in the election.
President Trump has cited the surge in Taliban attacks for canceling the peace talks with the militant group that would have ended America’s longest war and secured the withdrawal of foreign troops from Afghanistan in return for security guarantees from the Islamist outfit.
The US and Taliban negotiators were on the verge of signing an accord after agreeing in principle to a draft peace deal following more than a year of negotiations in Qatar.