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Afghanistan’s Ghani orders troops to switch to offensive as 40 killed in two attacks

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Afghan President Ashraf Ghani said on Tuesday he was ordering the military to move to 'offensive mode', after a violent day in which 40 people were killed in two separate attacks in different parts of the war-ravaged nation.

A suicide bomber struck the funeral of a police commander on Tuesday in the eastern Afghanistan province of Nangahar, killing at least 24 people and injuring 68. Authorities said that toll could rise. The funeral was attended by government officials and a member of parliament.

In a separate attack on the same day, gunmen disguised as police attacked a hospital in capital Kabul, killing 16 people including two newborn babies from a maternity clinic run by the international humanitarian organization Doctors Without Borders.

Afghan security forces stand guard outside Dasht-e-Barchi Hospital which came under attack in Kabul, on May 12, 2020.  (Reuters)
Afghan security forces stand guard outside Dasht-e-Barchi Hospital which came under attack in Kabul, on May 12, 2020. (Reuters)

There was no immediate claim of responsibility for either attack. The Taliban, Afghanistan’s main extremist insurgency group which says it has halted attacks on cities under a US troop withdrawal deal, denied involvement in both.

“In order to provide security for public places and to thwart attacks and threats from the Taliban and other terrorist groups, I am ordering Afghan security forces to switch from an active defence mode to an offensive one and to start their operations against the enemies,” Ghani said in a televised speech.

The military had taken a defensive stance as part of efforts to reduce violence as Washington tries to broker peace talks.

Meanwhile National Security Advisor Hamdullah Mohib said on Twitter: “there seems little point in continuing to engage Taliban in peace talks.”

The US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo called on the government of Afghanistan and the Taliban to cooperate to bring to justice the perpetrators of attacks on a hospital and a funeral that killed dozens of people, including two newborn babies.

Pompeo in a statement called the attack on the hospital “an act of sheer evil,” and he noted the Taliban denied responsibility for the attacks.

The Pentagon declined to comment on Ghani's stated intent to restart offensive operations, saying only that the US military continued to reserve the right to defend Afghan security forces if they are attacked by the Taliban.

“This is going to be a windy, bumpy road, but a political agreement is the best way to end the war,” said Pentagon spokesman Army Lieutenant Colonel Thomas Campbell, echoing remarks of US Defense Secretary Mark Esper.

The Islamic State extremist group operates in Nangahar and has carried out a number of high-profile attacks in Kabul in recent months. On Monday, security forces arrested its regional leader in the capital.

Men carry an injured person to a hospital after a blast during a funeral ceremony in Jalalabad, Afghanistan May 12, 2020.  (Reuters)
Men carry an injured person to a hospital after a blast during a funeral ceremony in Jalalabad, Afghanistan May 12, 2020. (Reuters)

The violence, as the country battles the coronavirus pandemic, risks derailing momentum towards US-brokered peace talks between the Taliban and an Afghan government long skeptical of the insurgents’ renunciation of attacks.

Photos from the Ministry of Interior showed two young children lying dead inside the hospital.

An image showed a woman who had been killed lying on the ground still holding tightly to her baby, who a nurse in the unit confirmed to Reuters had survived and had been moved to an intensive care unit at another hospital.

The Kabul attack began in the morning when at least three gunmen wearing police uniforms entered the Dasht-e-Barchi hospital, throwing grenades and shooting, government officials said. Security forces had killed the attackers by the afternoon.

“The attackers were shooting at anyone in this hospital without any reason. It's a government hospital, and a lot of people bring in their women and children for treatment,” said Ramazan Ali, a nearby vendor who saw the start of the attack.

The 100-bed government-run hospital hosted a maternity clinic run by Doctors Without Borders, also known by its French name Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF).

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MSF confirmed in a tweet that the hospital had been attacked. Just hours before it had tweeted a photo of a newborn at the clinic in his mother's arms after being delivered safely by emergency caesarean section.

Afghan women sit in an ambulance after being rescued by security forces during an attack and gunfire at a hospital in Kabul, Afghanistan. (Reuters)
Afghan women sit in an ambulance after being rescued by security forces during an attack and gunfire at a hospital in Kabul, Afghanistan. (Reuters)

Interior and health ministry officials said that mothers, nurses and children were among the dead and wounded.

Soldiers ferried infants out of the compound, some wrapped in blood-stained blankets, and officials said 100 people were rescued, including three foreigners.

The neighbourhood is home to many members of Afghanistan's Hazara community, a mostly Shia Muslim minority that has been attacked by Sunni militants from Islamic State in the past, including at a Kabul ceremony commemorating the death of one of its leaders in March.

Rights group Amnesty International condemned both attacks.

“The unconscionable war crimes in Afghanistan today, targeting a maternity hospital and a funeral, must awaken the world to the horrors civilians continue to face,” the group tweeted. “There must be accountability for these grave crimes.”


Countries including the United Kingdom, Germany, Turkey and Pakistan released statements condemning the violence.

Last week, security forces killed and arrested several members of an Islamic State cell that authorities said was responsible for several attacks in Kabul including one on a Sikh temple in March. A roadside blast in the capital on Monday, which wounded four civilians, was claimed by the group.

Afghanistan is also facing violence around the country from the Taliban, even as the United States tries to usher in peace talks after signing a troop withdrawal agreement in February with the militants. The Taliban say they are holding back from attacking urban centres and their operations are aimed at government security forces.

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