The death toll from an explosion near a school in a Shia district of west Kabul has risen to 58, Afghan officials said on Sunday, with doctors struggling to provide medical care to at least 150 people who were injured.
The bombing on Saturday evening shook the city’s neighbourhood of Dasht-e-Barchi. The community, a religious minority in Afghanistan, has been targeted in the past by Islamic State.
An eyewitness told Reuters news agency all but seven or eight of the victims were schoolgirls going home after finishing their studies.
Bodies were still being collected from morgues as the first burials were conducted in the west of the city. Some families were still searching for missing relatives on Sunday, gathering outside hospitals to read names posted on the walls, and checking morgues.
Kabul has been on alert since Washington announced plans last month to pull out all US troops by September 11, with Afghan officials saying the Taliban has stepped up its attacks across the country.
No group has claimed responsibility for Saturday’s blast.
Afghan President Ashraf Ghani issued a statement condemning the attack, blaming the Taliban even as the group denied it. He offered no proof.
“The Taliban, by escalating their illegitimate war and violence, have once again shown that they are not only reluctant to resolve the current crisis peacefully and fundamentally, but by complicating the situation,” Ghani said.
The Taliban condemned the attack, apparently aimed at civilians, and denied any responsibility.
It took place in a neighbourhood that has frequently been attacked by ISIL (ISIS) fighters over the years.
Al Jazeera’s Filio Kontrafouri, reporting from Kabul, said the attack happened about 5:30pm Kabul time (13:00 GMT).
“This is the time when students were finishing their classes, and were heading home, and we are talking about hundreds of students attending schools at that time,” she said.
She said witnesses reported three explosions that happened back to back, and “they were talking about girls who were panicking, who started running around, crying, calling for their mothers as others were trying to transfer as many as they could to hospital”.
“The entire city is numb after this attack.”
The school is a joint high school for girls and boys, who study in three shifts, the second of which is for female students, Najiba Arian, spokeswoman for the education ministry, told Reuters.
The European Union mission in Afghanistan condemned what it said was an “horrendous attack”.
“[This] … is a despicable act of terrorism,” the mission said on Twitter.
“Targeting primarily students in a girls’ school makes this an attack on the future of Afghanistan. On young people determined to improve their country.”
The United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) expressed its “deep revulsion” at the blast.
The UN family in #Afghanistan expresses its deep revulsion at today’s blasts in Dasht-I-Barchi #Kabul. An atrocity. Many civilians killed & injured. Our heartfelt condolences are with the victim’s families & we wish a speedy recovery to those hurt.
— UNAMA News (@UNAMAnews) May 8, 2021
In May last year, a group of gunmen attacked a hospital in the Dasht-e-Barchi neighbourhood in a brazen daylight raid that left 25 people killed, including 16 mothers of newborn babies.
The hospital was supported by Doctors Without Borders (Medecins Sans Frontieres, or MSF), the international medical charity, which later pulled out of the project.
No group claimed that attack, but President Ghani blamed the Taliban and ISIL.
On October 24, a suicide bomber blew himself up at a tuition centre in the same district, killing 18 people including students in an attack that also went unclaimed.
Saturday’s attack comes days after the remaining 2,500 to 3,500 American troops officially began leaving the country.
They will be gone by September 11 at the latest. The pullout comes amid a resurgent Taliban, which controls or holds sway over half of Afghanistan.
Under an agreement signed by the Taliban and the US last year, Washington was to pull out troops in exchange for Taliban security guarantees and for the group to start peace talks with the Afghan government. Talks began last year but have since stalled.
Taliban attacks on foreign forces have largely ceased, but they continue to target government forces. A number of journalists, activists and academics have also been killed in attacks blamed on the Taliban, which denies involvement.
The top US military officer said on Sunday that Afghan government forces face an uncertain future and potentially some “bad possible outcomes” against Taliban fighters as the withdrawal accelerates in the coming weeks.