Taliban fighters killed at least eight security personnel and six civilians in a car bomb attack in central Afghanistan that also wounded nearly 200 people – including dozens of children at a nearby school.
The suicide attack in Ghazni province on Sunday came as an all-Afghan peace conference, which includes the Taliban, began in Qatar in an effort to end years of violence and build trust between Afghan civilians and the armed group.
Keep readinglist of 4 items
Afghan officials said the bomb targeted the country’s main intelligence unit, National Directorate of Security (NDS).
Health officials in Ghazni said 13 adults, including eight NDS members, and a child were killed. At least 60 children attending classes in a private school near the blast site were among the 180 people wounded.
“The casualty figures may rise as this is not the last report of those injured in the powerful blast,” said Zaher Shah Nekmal, a health director in Ghazni province.
The Taliban claimed responsibility for the attack.
“Dozens of NDS officers were killed or wounded,” the group’s spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid said in a statement.
The blast in a crowded area of Ghazni city was the latest in a wave of near-daily attacks by the Taliban that now holds sway over about half of Afghanistan and continues to intensify attacks on Afghan forces despite increased US efforts towards a peace agreement to end the 18-year war.
Aid group Save the Children denounced the attack.
“This is simply unacceptable and we urge all armed groups in Afghanistan to think of future generations and stop the killing and maiming of innocent children,” said its country director Onno van Manen in a statement.
“Children did not ask for this war. They should not be paying the ultimate price for it. It’s time to stop the war on children.”
The Taliban, which has repeatedly refused to negotiate with the Western-backed government of President Ashraf Ghani, agreed to join the intra-Afghan summit in the Qatari capital, Doha, on the condition that those there would attend in a personal capacity.
About 60 high-profile Afghan figures and activists were in Doha to meet the Taliban representatives during the two-day conference, a meeting arranged by German and Qatari officials with the support of US negotiators.
US-Taliban peace talks in Doha were paused for two days to allow the intra-Afghan summit to take place. US and Taliban officials will reconvene on Tuesday.
The warring sides started a seventh round of peace talks last week, which US special envoy for peace in Afghanistan Zalmay Khalilzad described on Twitter on Saturday as the most productive session to date.
He said substantive progress had been made on all four parts of a peace deal: counterterrorism assurances, withdrawal of troops, participation in intra-Afghan negotiations, and a permanent and comprehensive ceasefire.
Military conflict and attacks on civilians have intensified even as the diplomatic process gains momentum, triggering tremendous unease among some Afghans about the significance of holding peace talks with the Taliban.
The armed group took responsibility for detonating a car bomb at the start of a lengthy gun battle outside a defence ministry compound in the capital, Kabul, last week. Sixteen people were killed and more than 100 civilians, including 51 children, were wounded in that attack.