United States blames Islamic State for Afghan maternity hospital attack

A U.S. official said Friday the Islamic State affiliate in Afghanistan carried out this week's horrific attack on a maternity hospital in a majority Shiite Muslim neighbourhood in Kabul, killing 24 people including newborn babies and mothers.

Doctors without Borders says attackers directly targeted maternity ward

A woman sits next to newborn babies who lost their mothers following a suicide attack in a maternity hospital in Kabul, Afghanistan on May 13. (AFP/Getty Images)

A U.S. official said Friday the Islamic State affiliate in Afghanistan carried out this week's horrific attack on a maternity hospital in a majority Shia Muslim neighbourhood in Kabul, killing 24 people, including newborn babies and mothers.

Peace envoy Zalmay Khalilzad said the U.S. government believes the Islamic State affiliate carried out Tuesday's attack on the hospital and an assault earlier the same day in a different province targeting the funeral of a pro-government warlord, killing 34 people.

ISIS "has demonstrated a pattern for favouring these types of heinous attacks against civilians and is a threat to the Afghan people and to the world," Khalilzad tweeted.

ISIS has not claimed responsibility for the maternity hospital attack.

'Pure hell'

Also on Friday, Paris-based charity Doctors without Borders (Médecins Sans Frontières), which operates the hospital, called the attack "pure hell." It said the gunmen moved directly to the maternity wards, ignoring other medical units closer to the entrance of the medical complex. They were searching out the newborns and the mothers, the group said in a statement Friday.

"They went through the rooms in the maternity, shooting women in their beds. It was methodical. Walls sprayed with bullets, blood on the floors in the rooms, vehicles burned out and windows shot through," said Frédéric Bonnot, MSF's head of programs in Afghanistan. "They came to kill the mothers."

The ISIS affiliate in Afghanistan, known as Islamic State Khorazan Province, is headquartered in the country's east and has carried out several devastating attacks, mostly targeting the country's minority Shia Muslims. In 2018, ISIS killed dozens of young students taking university entrance exams in the same Dasht-e-Barchi neighbourhood of Kabul.

They have issued warnings to Shias that they would kill them in their mosques, schools and homes.

The ISIS affiliate group took responsibility for the attack on the funeral in eastern Nangarhar province.

The Taliban denied involvement in either attack, calling the maternity hospital assault a "vile, inhumane and an un-Islamic act."

In a statement Friday, the insurgent movement slammed Afghan President Ashraf Ghani for blaming the Taliban in a speech following the attacks. They accused him of trying to scuttle a U.S.-Taliban peace deal aimed at ending nearly 20 years of war.

Khalilzad, the architect of the deal signed Feb. 29, warned in a series of tweets early Friday that the Islamic Sate affiliate opposes peace between the Taliban and Afghanistan's leadership in Kabul and "seeks to encourage sectarian war as in Iraq and Syria."

Afghan officials dismissed the Taliban denial. "Neither the Taliban hands nor their stained consciousness can be washed of the blood of women, babies and other innocent [people] in the latest senseless carnage," Afghan Vice-President Amrullah Saleh said on Twitter. 

A former intelligence chief, Saleh did not mention Khalilzad's comments, but said earlier some people were naive for accepting Taliban lies and blaming the "fictional" Islamic State faction in Afghanistan for the attack.

The peace deal provides for the withdrawal of U.S. and NATO troops from Afghanistan, but was also touted at its signing as the country's best chance at peace in four decades of war.

Competing political leaders

But relentless political turmoil in Kabul has dogged the start of the second, critical phase of the deal, which calls for Afghans on both sides of the conflict to negotiate a framework for a post-war Afghanistan.

Both Ghani and his rival in last September's presidential polls, Abdullah Abdullah, have declared themselves winners and have both been sworn in as president. They have been unable to come up with a power-sharing deal even as Washington has said it will withdraw $1 billion in aid if they don't end their squabbling.

Washington's efforts to get the Taliban to reduce their violence have also been unsuccessful, though their attacks have been against military installations and have not targeted U.S. and NATO troops.

The withdrawal of U.S. and NATO troops began after the deal was signed and will continue until all troops are gone by the end of next year — if the Taliban keeps its promise to fight against militant groups, most notably the Islamic State.

MSF operations halted

MSF has suspended its operations in Dasht-e-Barchi, the charity told The Associated Press.

"This was a necessary but difficult decision knowing that women and children in Kabul are now deprived of a fundamental health-care service they need, in a context where access to essential care is already limited," said Filipe Ribeiro, MSF's country representative.

The group said it will review its operations following an investigation into the attack.

With files from Reuters