World

Newborns among 16 dead in Kabul hospital attack

Gunmen disguised as police attacked a hospital in the Afghan capital Kabul on Tuesday, killing 16 people including two newborns from a maternity clinic run by the international humanitarian organization Doctors Without Borders.

'Act of sheer evil,' says U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo

Afghan women sit in an ambulance after being rescued by security forces during an attack at a hospital in Kabul on Tuesday. (Mohammad Ismail/Reuters)

Gunmen disguised as police attacked a hospital in the Afghan capital Kabul on Tuesday, killing 16 people including two newborns from a maternity clinic run by the international humanitarian organization Doctors Without Borders.

In a separate attack the same day, a suicide bomber struck the funeral of a police commander, attended by government officials and a member of parliament, in the eastern province of Nangarhar, killing at least 24 people and injuring 68. Authorities said the death toll could rise. 

There was no immediate claim of responsibility for either attack. The Taliban, Afghanistan's main Islamist insurgency group, which says it has halted attacks on cities under a U.S. troop withdrawal deal, denied involvement in both.

The ISIS militant group operates in Nangarhar and has carried out a number of high-profile attacks in Kabul in recent months. On Monday, security forces arrested its regional leader in the capital.

The violence risks derailing momentum toward U.S.-brokered peace talks between the Taliban and an Afghan government long skeptical of the insurgents' renunciation of attacks

A baby is taken away by ambulance after the attack. (Rahmat Gul/Associated Press)

The attack in Kabul began in the morning when at least three gunmen wearing police uniforms entered the Dasht-e-Barchi hospital, throwing grenades and shooting, government officials said. Security forces had killed the attackers by the afternoon.

"The attackers were shooting at anyone in this hospital without any reason. It's a government hospital, and a lot of people bring in their women and children for treatment," said Ramazan Ali, a nearby vendor who saw the start of the attack.

The 100-bed, government-run hospital has a maternity clinic run by Doctors Without Borders, also known by its French name Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF).

MSF confirmed in a tweet that the hospital had been attacked and staff and patients were being evacuated. Just hours before, it had tweeted a photo of a newborn infant at the clinic in his mother's arms after being delivered safely by emergency caesarean section.

Interior and Health Ministry officials said mothers, nurses and children were among the dead and wounded.

Photos from the Ministry of Interior showed two young children lying dead inside the hospital. An image showed a woman who had been killed lying on the ground still holding tightly to her baby, who a nurse in the unit confirmed to Reuters had survived and had been moved to an intensive care unit at another hospital.

Officials said 100 people in total were rescued, including three foreign nationals.

Attacks condemned

The neighborhood is home to many members of Afghanistan's Hazara community, a mostly Shia Muslim minority that has been attacked by Sunni militants from ISIS in the past, including at a Kabul ceremony commemorating the death of one of its leaders in March.

President Ashraf Ghani in a televised address condemned the attacks and said he had ordered the military to switch to an offensive mode rather than the defensive stance it had adopted as the United States withdraws troops and tries to broker the talks.

"In order to provide security for public places and to thwart attacks and threats from the Taliban and other terrorist groups, I am ordering Afghan security forces to switch from an active defence mode to an offensive one and to start their operations against the enemies," he said.

Meanwhile, national security adviser Hamdullah Mohib said on Twitter: "there seems little point in continuing to engage Taliban in peace talks."

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in a statement called the hospital attack "an act of sheer evil," while noting the Taliban had denied responsibility and also condemned both attacks. 

"The Taliban and the Afghan government should co-operate to bring the perpetrators to justice," Pompeo said. "As long as there is no sustained reduction in violence and insufficient progress towards a negotiated political settlement, Afghanistan will remain vulnerable to terrorism."

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo called on both the government of Afghanistan and the Taliban to bring the attackers to justice. (Andrew Harnik/AFP/Getty Images)

Human rights group Amnesty International similarly condemned the attacks.

"The unconscionable war crimes in Afghanistan today, targeting a maternity hospital and a funeral, must awaken the world to the horrors civilians continue to face," the group said on Twitter. "There must be accountability for these grave crimes."

Countries including the United Kingdom, Germany, Turkey and Pakistan released statements condemning the violence.

ISIS members killed

Last week, security forces killed and arrested several members of an ISIS cell that authorities said was responsible for several attacks in Kabul, including one on a Sikh temple in March. A roadside blast in the capital on Monday, which wounded four civilians, was claimed by the group.

Afghanistan is also facing violence around the country from the Taliban even as the United States tries to usher in peace talks after signing a troop withdrawal agreement in February with the militants.

The Taliban say they are holding back from attacking urban centres and their operations are aimed at government security forces.

With files from The Associated Press.

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