Gunmen dressed as medics stormed a hospital in the Afghan capital on Wednesday and battled security forces for hours, killing more than 38 people and wounding dozens in an attack claimed by Islamic State.
A suicide bomber blew himself up at the rear of the 400-bed Sardar Mohammad Daud Khan hospital, across the road from the heavily fortified U.S. embassy, and three attackers with automatic weapons and hand grenades entered the complex, security officials said.
Defence Ministry spokesman Dawlat Waziri said the attack was suppressed by mid-afternoon, with all three gunmen killed.
As security forces swept the hospital buildings, another ministry spokesman said they found at least 38 dead and more than 70 wounded, including doctors, patients and hospital staff, in addition to the three killed and 66 wounded reported earlier.
The gunmen, dressed as medical personnel, had taken up positions on the upper floors of the hospital and engaged special forces sent to the scene, officials said.
Security forces blocked off the area around the hospital, near a busy traffic intersection, and special forces soldiers descended on to the roof of the main building from helicopters.
Sporadic gunfire could be heard for hours and, as fighting went on, there was a second explosion, which a spokesman said was caused when a car inside the hospital complex blew up.
A statement from Islamic State’s Amaq News Agency said its fighters had attacked the hospital, while an Afghan Taliban spokesman denied responsibility, saying the Islamist insurgency had “no connection” with the attack.
The raid on the hospital followed warnings by government officials that high-profile attacks in Kabul were likely to escalate this year.
With U.S. President Donald Trump yet to announce his policy for Afghanistan, where the top U.S. commander has said thousands more international troops may be needed to maintain stability, the attack also pointed to Islamic State’s growing threat.
The movement, opposed to both the Western-backed government in Kabul and the Taliban, is based in the Middle East but has established a solid presence on the border with Pakistan.
The attack on a hospital that treats military casualties from around Afghanistan drew wide condemnation and President Ashraf Ghani said it “trampled on all human values”.
“In all religions, a hospital is regarded as an immune site and attacking it is attacking the whole of Afghanistan,” he said in impromptu remarks during a speech for International Women’s Day in Kabul.
Hospital administrators told media three gunmen wearing white laboratory coats began spraying bullets after a suicide bomber on foot blew himself up at the backdoor entrance, sparking chaos inside the facility.
The NATO-led Resolute Support mission said it was ready to assist Afghan security services, while the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan said the attack on hospital staff and patients not involved in the conflict amounted to a war crime.
Witnesses inside the hospital said they were caught by surprise as a gunman dressed in a white doctor’s coat took out a concealed AK-47 assault rifle and opened fire, killing at least one patient and one hospital worker.
“Suddenly gunfire broke out and a gunman was shooting at everyone,” said Zahir Khan, who hid under a table and later escaped. “He was shooting at doctors, patients and visitors.”
The attackers were gunned down after special forces landed on the roof of the hospital in a military helicopter.
As the fighting went on, some patients climbed out of the building and could be seen sheltering on window ledges.—Reuters