At least 50 killed in bomb blast near girls' school in Afghan capital
Bombing adds to fears that violence could escalate after U.S., NATO troops withdraw
The death toll in the bombing at a girls' school in the Afghan capital has soared to 50, many of them pupils between 11 and 15 years old, the Interior Ministry said Sunday.
The number of wounded in Saturday's attack has also climbed to more than 100, said Interior Ministry spokesperson Tariq Arian.
Three explosions outside the school entrance struck as students were leaving for the day, he said. The blasts occurred in the mostly Shia neighbourhood of Dasht-e-Barchi neighbourhood in the west of the capital. The Taliban denied responsibility, condemning the attack.
The first explosion came from a vehicle packed with explosives, followed by two others, said Arian, adding that the casualty figures could still rise.
The bombing, apparently aimed to cause maximum civilian carnage, adds to fears that violence in the war-wrecked country could escalate as the U.S. and NATO end nearly 20 years of military engagement.
One resident, Naser Rahimi, said the explosion went off as the girls were streaming out of the school around 4:30 p.m. local time. One of the students fleeing the school recalled the attack, the screaming of the girls and the blood.
"I was with my classmate, we were leaving the school, when suddenly an explosion happened, " said 15-year-old Zahra, whose arm had been broken by a piece of shrapnel.
"Ten minutes later, there was another explosion and just a couple of minutes later another explosion," she said. "Everyone was yelling and there was blood everywhere, and I couldn't see anything clearly." Her friend died.
While no one has claimed responsibility for the bombing, the Afghan affiliate of ISIS (Islamic State of Iraq and Syria) has targeted the Shia neighbourhood before.
The radical Sunni Muslim group has declared war on Afghanistan's minority Shia Muslims. Washington blamed ISIS for a vicious attack last year in a maternity hospital in the same area that killed pregnant women and newborn babies.
In Dasht-e-Barchi, angry crowds attacked the ambulances and even beat health workers as they tried to evacuate the wounded, Health Ministry spokesperson Ghulam Dastigar Nazari said. He implored residents to co-operate and allow ambulances free access to the site.
Images circulating on social media purportedly showed bloodied school backpacks and books strewn across the street in front of the school, as smoke rose above the neighbourhood.
At one nearby hospital, Associated Press journalists saw at least 20 dead bodies lined up in hallways and rooms, with dozens of wounded people and families of victims pressing through the facility.
Outside the Muhammad Ali Jinnah Hospital, dozens of people lined up to donate blood, while family members checked casualty lists posted on the walls.
Both Arian and Nazari said that at least 50 people were also wounded and that the casualty toll could rise. The attack occurred just as the fasting day came to an end.
Taliban, ISIS blamed
No one immediately claimed responsibility for the attack, and Taliban spokesperson Zabihullah Mujahid told reporters in a message that only ISIS could be responsible for such a heinous crime. Mujahid also accused Afghanistan's intelligence agency of being complicit with ISIS, although he offered no evidence.
The Taliban and the Afghan government have traded accusations over a series of targeted killings of civil society workers, journalists and Afghan professionals. While ISIS has taken responsibility for some of those killings, many have gone unclaimed.
Afghan President Ashraf Ghani issued a statement condemning the attack, blaming the Taliban even as they denied it. He offered no proof.
ISIS has previously claimed attacks against minority Shia in the same area, last year taking responsibility for two brutal attacks on education facilities that killed 50 people, most of them students.
Even as ISIS has been degraded in Afghanistan, according to government and U.S. officials, it has stepped up its attacks — particularly against Shia Muslims and female workers.
Earlier the group took responsibility for the targeted killing of three female media personnel in eastern Afghanistan.
Saturday's attack comes days after the remaining 2,500 to 3,500 American troops officially began leaving the country. They are expected to be gone by Sept. 11 at the latest — the 20th anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks on the U.S. The pullout comes amid a resurgent Taliban, who control or hold sway over half of Afghanistan.
The top U.S. military officer said Sunday that Afghan government forces face an uncertain future and some "bad possible outcomes" against Taliban insurgents as the withdrawal accelerates in the coming weeks.