A Taliban attack on a government security compound in central Afghanistan on Sunday killed at least 14 people and wounded more than 180, including scores of children, hours before a meeting in Qatar aimed at preparing the ground for peace talks.
Taliban fighters detonated a car bomb in Ghazni city near an office of Afghanistan's main intelligence service, the National Directorate of Security (NDS), during Sunday morning's rush hour, officials said.
The Taliban claimed responsibility, saying in a statement dozens of NDS officers were killed or wounded.
The attack took place as Taliban officials and a selected group of Afghan activists and civil society figures prepared to meet in Doha, casting a pall over talks intended to open the way for full peace negotiations in the future.
“It is unfathomable to endanger children in this way and I strongly condemn this attack,” US Special Representative for Afghanistan Reconciliation, Zalmay Khalilzad, said in a tweet.
Health officials in Ghazni said 13 adults, including eight NDS members, and a child were killed. At least 60 children who were attending classes in a private school situated near the blast site were among the 180 people wounded.
Doors and windows of the school were destroyed in the powerful explosion, the children suffered multiple injuries caused by flying shards of glass and broken pieces of wood.
“The casualty figures may rise as this is not the last report of those injured in the powerful blast,” said Zaher Shah Nekmal, a health director in Ghazni province.
The blast in a crowded area of Ghazni city was the latest in a wave of near-daily attacks by the Taliban, who now hold sway over about half of Afghanistan and continue to intensify attacks on Afghan forces despite increased US efforts towards a peace agreement to end the 18-year war.
Intra-Afghan summit in Qatar
The Taliban, who have repeatedly refused to negotiate with the Western-backed government of Afghan President Ashraf Ghani, agreed to join the intra-Afghan summit on the condition that those there would attend in a personal capacity.
About 60 high-profile Afghan figures and activists were in Doha to meet the Taliban officials during the two-day conference, a meeting arranged by German and Qatari officials with the support of US negotiators.
Ghani condemned the Taliban bombing in Ghazni on Sunday, and questioned their real intent as they hold talks in Qatar.
“They stain their hands with the blood of innocent people in Afghanistan every day. They should know that it is not possible to gain privileges in peace talks by targeting civilians, especially children,” he said in a statement.
The intra-Afghan talks follow the start of a seventh round of peace talks between US and Taliban negotiators in Doha last week, which Khalilzad described on Twitter on Saturday as the most productive session to date. The US-Taliban talks were put on hold while the intra-Afghan dialogue takes place.
He said substantive progress had been made on all four parts of a peace deal: counter-terrorism assurances, troop withdrawal, participation in intra-Afghan negotiations, and a permanent and comprehensive ceasefire.
Military conflict and attacks on civilians have intensified even as the diplomatic process gains momentum, triggering tremendous unease among some Afghans about the significance of holding peace talks with the Taliban.
Government officials in the southern provinces of Logar and Helmand said the Afghan forces had conducted several air strikes on Taliban hideouts in the last 36 hours, killing over 30 insurgents.
The Taliban took responsibility for detonating a car bomb at the start of a lengthy gun fight outside a defence ministry compound in the capital, Kabul, last week. Six people were killed and more than 100 civilians, including 60 children, were wounded in that attack.
In western Ghor province, a landmine explosion killed seven children and wounded one on Saturday, officials said. The blast occurred when children stepped accidentally walked over a landmine. The insurgents often place landmines to target Afghan security forces, but the lethal weapons also inflict casualties on civilians.
According to the United Nations, 3,804 civilians — including more than 900 children — were killed in Afghanistan in 2018, with another 7,000 wounded. It was the deadliest year to date for civilians in Afghanistan's conflict.