JALALABAD: At least four people were killed and a dozen injured when gunmen stormed a crowded government building in eastern Afghanistan on Wednesday following a suicide bombing, with desperate survivors leaping from windows to escape the fighting, witnesses and officials said.

Security forces rushed to the scene after armed men attacked the office in Jalalabad, the capital of eastern Nangarhar province, in the latest violence to hit the war-torn country as it gears up for a presidential election on Sept 28.

Terrified children at a nearby school climbed over walls to get further away from the fighting.

A provincial spokesman, Ataullah Khogyani, said a suicide bomber had initially detonated explosives, after which the gunmen attacked.

Imran sympathises with Afghan president

Security forces fought to clear the building for several hours before declaring all three gunmen dead, interior ministry spokesman Nasrat Rahimi said roughly six hours after the attack began.

Witnesses and a reporter could hear gunshots immediately after the initial blast.

One of the centre’s employees, Haji Qudrat, described the moment one of the gunmen entered his office.

“After the explosion, we heard small gunfire in our corridor, then a man entered our office with a gun and started shooting,” he said from a hospital in Jalalabad, where he was receiving treatment for a wounded leg.

“I jumped out the window. Some of our friends are either killed or wounded.” Qudrat said there had been around 200 people inside the centre when the bomber detonated — 80 employees, and the rest people waiting to receive their national electronic identity cards, or “tazkiras”.

“I was in class when I heard a big explosion followed by intense gunfire,” said Mohammad Ullah, a teacher at a nearby school.

“The kids started crying so we had to vacate the school. We jumped over the walls to take the students to a safer place,” he said.

No group has claimed the attack. Both the Taliban and the militant Islamic State group are active in Nangarhar.

The militants have vowed to disrupt the upcoming presidential election, scheduled for Sept 28, in which Ghani is taking on his own Chief Executive, Abdullah Abdullah, and more than a dozen other candidates.

The winner is hoping for a mandate to negotiate with the Taliban for a lasting peace in the country suffering from decades of violence.

But the insurgents want to undermine the legitimacy of the process and keep the president weak.

“We already warned people not to attend election rallies. If they suffer any losses that is their own responsibility,” Taliban spokesman Zabih­ullah Mujahid said.

They have also promised more violence after US President Donald Trump called off talks earlier this month seeking a deal that would have allowed Washington to begin withdrawing troops from Afghanistan, site of America’s longest war.

Imran calls Ghani

In Islamabad, Prime Minister Imran Khan called Afghan President Ashraf Ghani and conveyed his sympathy and condolence over the loss of lives in Tuesday’s terrorist attacks, adds our staff reporter.

At least 48 people died in two suicide blasts, one at a campaign rally for Mr Ghani in Parwan province and the other in Kabul.

Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid claimed responsibility for the attacks.

Conveying his relief on President Ghani’s safety, who was present at the time of blast in his election rally, Mr Khan reiterated Pakistan’s condemnation of the attacks.

“Pakistan will continue to support Afghanistan in its efforts for restoration of complete peace and stability,” the PM told the president.

Published in Dawn, September 19th, 2019