Heavy casualties as Taliban suicide bombing, gunfire rattle Kabul
An Afghan wounded receives treatment after following a suicide car bomb attack the NDS compound at Wazir Akbar Khan hospital in Kabul on April 19, 2016. (AFP PHOTO)
(AFP) - A powerful Taliban truck bombing followed by a fierce firefight left at least seven people dead and 327 others wounded Tuesday, officials said, a week after the insurgents launched their annual spring offensive.
The Taliban claimed responsibility for the attack near government offices, which sent clouds of acrid smoke billowing in the sky and rattled windows several kilometres (miles) away.
The brazen assault in a densely packed neighbourhood marks the first major Taliban attack in the Afghan capital since the insurgents announced the start of this year's fighting season.
"The latest toll shows at least seven people have been killed and 327 others wounded," health ministry spokesman Mohammad Ismail Kawoosi told AFP.
"Most of those wounded are civilians and many are in a serious condition."
Security officials said the loud explosion was triggered by a truck bomb, expressing concerns that other bombers may still be on the loose.
The Afghan interior ministry denounced the attack as a "war crime", pledging to track down the perpetrators.
Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid claimed their fighters had managed to enter the offices of the National Directorate of Security, the main spy agency.
Afghan officials dismissed those claims, saying that the target of the attack was a government office responsible for providing security to government VIPs.
Pitched gun battles were ongoing near the building, which was cordoned off by security officials as ambulances were seen rushing to the scene.
The Taliban are generally known to exaggerate battlefield claims.
"(We) condemn in the strongest terms the terrorist attack in Puli Mahmood Khan neighbourhood of Kabul, as a result of which many of our countrymen were martyred and wounded," President Ashraf Ghani said in a statement.
"Such cowardly terrorist attacks will not weaken the will and determination of Afghan security forces to fight against terrorism."
- 'Spring offensive' -
The Taliban on Tuesday last week announced the start of their "spring offensive" even as the government in Kabul seeks to bring them back to the negotiating table to end the drawn-out conflict.
The Taliban warned they would "employ large-scale attacks on enemy positions across the country" during the offensive dubbed Operation Omari in honour of the movement's late founder Mullah Omar, whose death was announced last year.
The insurgents began the fighting season last week by targeting the northern city of Kunduz, which they briefly captured last year in a stunning setback for Afghan forces.
But officials said Afghan security forces drove Taliban fighters back from the city on Friday.
The annual spring offensive normally marks the start of the "fighting season", though this past winter the lull was shorter and rebels continued to battle government forces, albeit with less intensity.
The Taliban's resurgence has raised serious questions about Afghan forces' capacity to hold their own. An estimated 5,500 troops were killed last year, the worst-ever toll.
Peace talks which began last summer were abruptly halted after it was revealed that Taliban leader Mullah Omar had been dead for two years, a disclosure which sparked infighting in the insurgents' ranks.
A four-country group comprising Afghanistan, the United States, China and Pakistan has been holding meetings since January aimed at jump-starting negotiations, though their efforts have so far been in vain.
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