A bomb hidden in an ambulance killed at least 95 people and wounded 158 in the Afghan capital Kabul on Saturday when it blew up at a police checkpoint on Saturday.
The Taliban claimed responsibility for the suicide blast, a week after they claimed the attack on the city’s Intercontinental Hotel in which more than 20 people were killed.
An interior ministry spokesman blamed the Haqqani network, a militant group affiliated with the Taliban which Afghan and Western officials consider to be behind many of the biggest attacks on urban targets in Afghanistan.
Hours after the blast, a health ministry spokesman said the casualty toll was likely to rise as more figures were collated from hospitals.
As medical teams struggled to handle the casualties pouring in, some of the wounded were laid out in the open, with intravenous drips set up next to them in hospital gardens.
“It’s a massacre,” said Dejan Panic, coordinator in Afghanistan for the Italian aid group Emergency, which runs a nearby trauma hospital.
The latest attack will add pressure on President Ashraf Ghani and his U.S. allies, who have expressed growing confidence that a new more aggressive military strategy has succeeded in driving Taliban insurgents back from major provincial centres.
The United States has stepped up its assistance to Afghan security forces and increased its air strikes against the Taliban and other militant groups, aiming to break a stalemate and force the insurgents to the negotiating table.
However, the Taliban has dismissed suggestions it has been weakened by the new strategy, and the incidents of the past week have shown its capacity to mount deadly, high-profile attacks is undiminished, even in the heavily protected centre of Kabul.
Mirwais Yasini, a member of parliament who was nearby when the explosion occurred, said an ambulance approached the checkpoint and blew up. The target was apparently an interior ministry building nearby.
Buildings hundreds of metres away were shaken by the force of the blast, which left torn bodies strewn on the street amid piles of rubble, debris and wrecked cars.
Saturday is a working day in Afghanistan and the streets were full when the blast went off at around lunchtime in a busy part of the city near a number of foreign embassies and government buildings.
The casualty toll is the worst since 150 people were killed in a truck bomb explosion near the German embassy, not far from Saturday’s blast, last May, an attack that prompted a major reinforcement of security in the city.
With much of central Kabul now a heavily fortified zone of high concrete blast walls and police checkpoints, there were angry questions about how the bomber had been able to get through and set off the blast.
“I was sitting in the office when the explosion went off,” said Alam, an office worker whose head was badly cut in the blast.
“All the windows shattered, the building collapsed and everything came down.”
People helped walking-wounded away as ambulances with sirens wailing inched their way through the traffic-clogged streets of the city centre.