A massive blast in a Kabul residential neighbourhood killed at least 16 people, officials said Tuesday, following yet another Taliban attack that came as the insurgents and Washington try to finalise a withdrawal deal.
US special envoy Zalmay Khalilzad was in the Afghan capital to discuss the proposed deal — which would see the United States withdraw troops in return for Taliban security guarantees — when the Monday bombing took place.
Television footage showed a massive crater near crumbled blast walls, twisted metal where buildings once stood and the charred remains of a petrol station that had caught fire and blew up as a result of the attack.
Interior ministry spokesman Nasrat Rahimi said the blast was caused by a tractor packed with explosives that had been parked alongside a wall by Green Village, a large fortified compound that houses aid agencies and international organisations.
Five gunmen then tried to storm the area in a “complex attack”, but Afghan security forces shot and killed them before they got far into the compound, Rahimi said.
In addition to the 16 killed, 119 were wounded, he added, noting all the victims were civilians.
Among the dead was a Romanian employee of that country’s mission, while another Romanian suffered serious injuries, Bucharest said.
The bombing was the third major Taliban attack in as many days — and the violence is likely to continue, Taliban expert Rahimullah Yusufzai said.
The insurgents are convinced it was their military strength which has forced Washington to open talks with them on a withdrawal, he said.
“This is the weapon in their hands and they will keep on using it until they gain their objectives,” he told AFP.
Residents in the area around Green Village were furious that their neighbourhood, which has been targeted before, had been hit once again and blamed the assault on the nearby international presence.
“All our rooms have been destroyed, and I don’t know where to go now,” a woman victim in a local hospital told AFP.
“My two daughters have been injured and are in the hospital. This explosion ruined our lives.”
Locals set tyres on fire, sending plumes of thick, acrid smoke into the morning sky, and closed off a main road next to the scene of the attack. The sound of gunfire could be heard Monday morning but by the afternoon the situation appeared to have calmed.
“We want these foreigners to move out of our neighbourhood,” resident Abdul Jamil told AFP.
“This is not the first time we suffer because of them… We don’t want them here anymore.”
The most recent attack on Green Village was in January, when a powerful truck bomb killed at least four people and wounded more than 100 others.
Green Village is separate from the nearby Green Zone, a walled-off and heavily fortified part of Kabul that is home to several embassies including the US and British missions.
US to leave five bases
The Taliban claimed Monday’s attack, which was condemned by President Ashraf Ghani and came as Afghanistan‘s main TV station, Tolo News, was broadcasting an interview with Khalilzad.
The Afghan-born envoy, who has spent about a year negotiating with the Taliban, told Tolo the US would pull troops from five bases across Afghanistan under a final deal if the Taliban honour their end of the bargain.
“We have agreed that if the conditions proceed according to the agreement, we will leave within 135 days five bases in which we are present now,” Khalilzad said.
The Pentagon gives the official number of US troops in Afghanistan as 14,000 — though the real number is thought to be a bit less — and President Donald Trump last week said America would maintain a permanent presence of about 8,600 troops initially, even after a deal is reached with the Taliban.
That would appear to mean about 5,400 US troops are set to leave Afghanistan under the initial terms of the deal, reducing the US military presence to about what it was before Trump came into office.
In return for reducing troop numbers, the Taliban would vow to cut ties with Al-Qaeda and open negotiations with the Afghan government with the aim of creating an eventual ceasefire.
In Washington, former US ambassadors to Afghanistan on warned in a joint statement Tuesday against a major troop withdrawal without a comprehensive peace accord.
“A major withdrawal of US forces should follow, not come in advance, of (a) real peace agreement,” the former envoys wrote.
Even as negotiations for an accord have entered what are widely considered to be the final stages, violence has surged across Afghanistan.
On Saturday, the Taliban attempted to seize the provincial capital of Kunduz in the north, and on Sunday, they launched an operation in the city of Pul-e Khumri, the capital of neighbouring Baghlan province.