KABUL/PESHAWAR, Pakistan (Reuters) - Afghan President Ashraf Ghani vowed on Wednesday to avenge “every drop of blood” from this week’s suicide attack in Kabul, as officials more than doubled the death toll to 64.
The attack hit an office of the national security services, in an area close to the heart of the government and diplomatic area. Most of the casualties, including 347 wounded, were civilians, Interior Ministry spokesman Sediq Sediqqi said.
But around 30 members of the National Directorate of Security (NDS) died in the attack, most shot by gunmen who rushed into the complex after a vehicle packed with explosives blew up at the entrance to the compound, according to lawmakers.
The Taliban quickly claimed the attack, the deadliest single incident of its kind in Kabul since 2011 which came only days after the Islamist insurgent movement announced the start of its annual spring offensive.
But it rejected the statement about civilian casualties, accusing the government of “malicious propaganda”. The Taliban said 92 security service personnel had been killed in the attack, although they often exaggerate casualty figures.
Smashed windows and damaged shop fronts hundreds of meters away attested to the strength of the blast, which tore through the area.
“My cousins were trapped under the dust and wreckage for almost three hours and there was no one to help them,” said 28-year-old Javid Sabiri, as he worked on clearing up the debris from his family’s house.
Concerns about civilian casualties had already been raised in a recent United Nations report, which said an increase in urban warfare had caused a spike during the first three months of the year.
The attack, which Ghani called “unjust, un-Islamic and inhumane”, appeared to destroy any hopes of reviving the stalled peace process, which the Taliban had already rejected.
However despite their denials, insurgent leaders acknowledged the issue of civilian casualties as a problem.
“Though civilian losses aren’t as high as declared by the Afghan government and media, it saddened us,” one senior commander said.
“We do take extra care and sometimes we even postpone our attacks in highly important areas because we don’t want common people to suffer,” he said.
The comments underline the sensitivity of the Taliban to accusations that it has no regard for ordinary citizens, a charge frequently leveled by both the Kabul government and Afghanistan’s international partners.
According to an adviser to one member of the Taliban’s powerful Rahbari Shura, or leadership council, an investigation has been ordered into the casualty reports with a view to limiting them in future.
But the attack during the middle of the morning rush hour took place at a time when hundreds of civilians were on the streets near the offices of a department in the NDS, just across the river from the presidential palace.
Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid said the bombers had approached the building from the side least likely to cause casualties among passers-by.
“However, the blasts were so powerful that they caused some damage to nearby buildings and injuries to civilians which we regret,” he said in a statement.
The NDS has not given any figures for casualties among its personnel, but Zahir Sadat, a lawmaker from Panjshir, and Abdul Rahoof Enhami from Badakhshan, said that around 30 NDS men from their districts had been buried.
Additional reporting by Mirwais Harooni and Mohammad Aziz; Writing by James Mackenzie; Editing by Paul Tait and Mike Collett-White