International

Afghan attack: Maternity ward death toll climbs to 24

An Afghan soldier cradles a baby in his arms after the attack in Kabul

The number of people who were killed in a militant attack on a maternity ward in the Afghan capital has risen to 24.

Mothers, newborn babies and nurses were among the victims. At least 16 people were injured, the health ministry said.

Tuesday’s attack in Kabul prompted widespread condemnation. No group has said it carried it out.

In a second incident that day, a suicide bomber killed at least 32 people at a funeral in Nangarhar, in the east of the country.

President Ashraf Ghani has ordered the resumption of offensive operations against the Taliban and other groups.

He accused the militants of ignoring repeated calls for a reduction in violence.

The Islamic State (IS) group said it was behind the attack on the police commander’s funeral in Nangarhar.

It is still not clear who carried out the attack at the Dasht-e-Barchi hospital in Kabul, and the Taliban have denied any involvement.

Relatives of about 15 babies whose mothers were killed have gathered awaiting news of what will happen to the infants, the New York Times reported.

In all, about 100 people were killed in violence around Afghanistan on Tuesday, the paper said. The attacks underline the fragility of peace efforts, and have dimmed hopes for an end to decades of war.

What happened at the hospital?

The Kabul attack began at about 10:00 (05:30 GMT) on Tuesday, and locals described hearing two blasts then gunfire. One doctor who fled during the assault told the BBC that about 140 people were in the hospital when the gunmen attacked.

A maternity ward in the hospital is run by the international medical charity Médecins sans Frontières (MSF) and some of those working there are foreigners.

The hospital was attacked on Tuesday morning

Another doctor told AFP news agency that “total panic” took hold as the assault unfolded.

Ramazan Ali, a vendor who saw the attack begin, told Reuters news agency: “The attackers were shooting at anyone in this hospital without any reason.”

Afghan special forces rescued 100 women and children, including three foreigners, an official told the BBC. The three attackers, who reportedly had gained access dressed as police officers, were all killed by security personnel after a battle lasting hours.

Images from the scene showed soldiers carrying newborn babies swaddled in blood-stained blankets to safety.

In the past, similar attacks in this mostly Shia area of the capital have been attributed to IS. The group’s leader in South Asia and the Far East was arrested in Kabul on Monday, with two other high profile members, Afghan intelligence said.

As well as two babies, at least 12 mothers and healthcare workers were killed

In 2017, IS gunmen disguised as medical staff attacked Kabul’s main military hospital, prompting widespread shock and anger and raising questions about security. The authorities later confirmed about 50 people had been killed.

But the Taliban also attack hospitals. Last September, 20 people died after a truck packed with explosives was detonated by militants from the group outside a hospital in southern Zabul province.

On TV, Mr Ghani said: “In order to provide security for public places and to thwart attacks and threats from the Taliban and other terrorist groups, I’m ordering Afghan security forces to switch from an active defence mode to an offensive one and to resume their operations against the enemies.”

What was the reaction?

Tuesday’s attacks were widely condemned by countries around the world and human rights groups, with Amnesty International saying: “The unconscionable war crimes in Afghanistan today… must awaken the world to the horrors civilians continue to face.”

Relatives were still looking for news of their loved ones on Wednesday, a day after the attack

“Who attacks newborn babies and new mothers? Who does this?” tweeted Debra Lyons, the head of the UN mission in Afghanistan.

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said: “Any attack on innocents is unforgiveable, but to attack infants and women in labour… is an act of sheer evil.

“Terrorists who attack mourners lining up for prayer at a funeral are only seeking to tear apart the bonds that hold families and communities together, but they will never succeed.”

According to survivors, thousands of people had gathered for the funeral in Nangarhar, and the bomb detonated about half-way through. Casualty figures have been rising since first reports of the bombing. Officials now say 133 people were injured.

People help those injured during the attack on the funeral to a hospital

Meanwhile, in northern Balkh province, at least 10 people were killed and many others injured in an air strike by US forces, reports said. Residents and the Taliban claimed the victims were all civilians, but the Afghan Defence Ministry said all those killed were militants.

What’s going on with Afghan peace talks?

Since a February troop withdrawal agreement signed between the US and the Taliban, talks between the Afghan government and the Taliban have broken down over a prisoner swap and violence has continued unabated.

The agreement was aimed at ending more than 18 years of war since US-led forces ousted the Taliban from power following the 9/11 attacks on the US, whose mastermind Osama Bin Laden had been given sanctuary by the hardline Islamist group.

Tens of thousands of people, most of them civilians, have been killed in the conflict. Many more have been injured or displaced from their homes.