A massive explosion rocked a highly secure diplomatic area of Kabul on Wednesday morning, killing 80 people and wounding as many as 350. The blast left a scene of mayhem and destruction and sent a huge plume of smoke over the Afghan capital.
The target of the attack — which officials said was a suicide car bombing — was not immediately known, but Ismail Kawasi, spokesman of the public health ministry, said most of the casualties were civilians, including women and children. It was one of the worst attacks Kabul has seen since the drawdown of foreign forces at the end of 2014.
Several embassies located in the area were heavily damaged in the explosion. It wasn't known if any foreign diplomats were among the casualties, but Germany and Pakistan said some of their embassy employees and staff were hurt.
The attack took place at the peak of Kabul's rush hour when roads are packed with worktime commuters. It went off close to a busy intersection in the Wazir Akbar Khan district, said Najib Danish, deputy spokesman for the Interior Ministry.
The neighbourhood is considered Kabul's safest area, with foreign embassies protected by dozens of 10-foot-high blast walls and government offices, guarded by police and national security forces. The German Embassy, the Foreign Ministry, and the Presidential Palace are all in the area, as are the British and Canadian embassies. The Chinese, Turkish, and Iranian embassies are also located there.
Local TV footage showed shocked residents soaked in blood stumbling about, then being ferried away to hospitals. Passers-by stopped and helped the wounded into their private cars, others congregated outside the nearby Italian-run Emergency Hospital.
No group immediately claimed responsibility for the blast. Both the Taliban and the Islamic State group have staged large-scale attacks in the Afghan capital in the past.
The Afghan Taliban later issued a statement denying any involvement in the bombing and condemning all attacks against civilians. Zabihullah Mujahid, spokesman for the Taliban, said Wednesday's explosion had "nothing to do with the Mujahedeen of Islamic Emirate," as the Taliban call themselves.
But even though the Taliban claim they are only waging war against the Kabul government and foreign forces in Afghanistan, most of the casualties of their attacks have been civilians.
A statement from the Ministry of Interior Affairs said it "condemns in the strongest terms the terrorist attack" that killed so many, including women and children. "These heinous acts go against the values of humanity as well values of peaceful Afghans," it added.
Afghan President Ashraf Ghani also condemned the attack, which came just days into the Muslim holy month of Ramadan. A statement from his office quoted Ghani as saying that "the terrorists, even in the holy month of Ramadan, the month of goodness, blessing and prayer, are not stopping the killing of our innocent people."
Germany's Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel said an unspecified number of German Embassy employees in Kabul were hurt in the blast and an Afghan security guard outside the building was killed. Gabriel said all embassy workers were safe and offered his condolences to the family of the slain guard.
Pakistan also denounced the "terrorist attack in Kabul" and its Ministry of Foreign Affairs said it "caused damage to the residences of some Pakistani diplomats and staff, living in the close vicinity, and inflicted minor injuries to some."
China's foreign ministry said its Kabul embassy in Kabul was partly damaged but that all embassy staff were "safe and sound" and that there had been no reports of injured Chinese citizens.
Kawasi, the health official, said the wounded were admitted to different Kabul hospitals. Shortly after the explosion, all roads in Wazir Akbar Khan were blocked off by Afghan security forces and helicopters were deployed over the neighbourhood.
The blast was so heavy that more than 50 vehicles were either destroyed or damaged at the site of the attack.
Residents described a mushroom cloud over Kabul and windows were shattered in shops, restaurants, and other buildings up to half a mile from the site of the explosion.