A Taliban suicide bomber struck a police base in central Kabul Monday, killing 20 Afghan police officers and injuring at least 32 others, according to a statement from the international military coalition in Afghanistan. The attack comes just days before a fresh round of international talks aimed at reviving dialogue with the insurgent group.
The attack comes amid the Taliban's unprecedented winter offensive despite the renewed push to restart formal peace talks. Those efforts are in the third round of four-country "roadmap talks" trying to lay the groundwork for direct dialogue between Kabul and the Taliban group.
Delegates from Afghanistan, Pakistan, China and the United States are set to convene in Islamabad on Feb. 6 in a bid to seek a negotiated end to the Taliban insurgency, now in its fifteenth year. The Taliban have stepped up attacks on government and foreign targets in Afghanistan this winter, when fighting usually abates, underscoring a worsening security situation.
Afghan President Ashraf Ghani forcefully condemned the attack in a statement. "Such acts are unforgivable crimes against civilians," the statement quoting him as saying. "The government will never have talks with those groups who kill innocent civilians, women and children. Instead the Afghan security forces will mobilize in their fight against them."
Monday’s attack took place in a busy part of western Kabul, near the zoo. The interior ministry initially reported the attack as a suicide car bomb, but later said the attacker appeared to be on foot and detonated himself in a line of people waiting to get inside the base.
Earlier, Afghanistan's deputy interior minister said on Twitter that 10 people were reported killed and 20 more wounded in the attack.
The reasons for the discrepancy between the interior ministry's figures and those of the international coalition were not immediately clear.
Kabul police spokesman Basir Mujahid said the attacker joined a line of people waiting to enter the local headquarters of a branch of the national police after having lunch and praying outside. The bomber detonated his payload after being spotted near the gate.
The health ministry said some of those wounded were hit in the chest by flying shrapnel and are in critical condition. Ambulances rushed to the scene, which was cordoned off by authorities.
In recent months the Taliban briefly captured the northern city of Kunduz, the first urban center to fall to the armed group, and have seized territory in the opium-growing southern province of Helmand. Observers say the intensifying insurgency highlights a push by the group to seize more territory in an attempt to wrangle greater concessions during talks.
Pakistan — the Taliban's historic backers — hosted a milestone first round of talks directly with the Taliban in July.
But the negotiations stalled when the insurgents belatedly confirmed the death of longtime leader Mullah Omar, sparking infighting within the group.
The first and second round of the four-country talks were held last month in Islamabad and Kabul respectively.
The Taliban, who have been at war with the government for 15 years, claimed responsibility for the attack, with its spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid claiming on Twitter that up to 40 police were killed and wounded.
The group routinely exaggerates the toll in attacks on the Afghan government.