An explosion during Kabul’s busy rush hour on Sunday targeted the office of President Ashraf Ghani’s running mate on the first day of campaigning for September’s elections.
The office of Amrullah Saleh’s Green Trend Movement was hit with what a party member said was a “complex, ongoing attack” that began with the detonation of a car bomb at about 4.40pm local time. At least two gunmen then entered the building, triggering an hours-long battle with security forces,
Another loud blast was heard just before 10pm. A Green Trend member said it came from inside the building where clearance operations were under way. All the attackers were reported killed shortly afterwards.
A party official told The National that Mr Saleh was safe after the attack. His Green Trend party shared an image on Twitter of the party leader sitting with security and survivors showing him with a light injury to the arm.
Amrullah Saleh, Mr Ghani's running mate in the upcoming elections, survived a complex attack on his office in Kabul city, a member of his party, the Green Trend Movement confirmed to The National. However, several others remain under siege by unknown armed insurgents, who are engaged in a complex attack with the Afghan security forces. Ministry of Interiors spokesperson shared that at least 40 people have been evacuated so far.
Eyewitnesses said the building was busy on Sunday given that it was the first day of campaigning for September's election. One witness said they saw many people wounded, including children. Many were also cut by flying glass from surrounding buildings when the bomb went off.
The Health Ministry reported at least two people killed and 25 wounded by Sunday night.
The blast hit a road near the private Ghalib University and Shahid Square, a four-way intersection, interior ministry spokesman Nasrat Rahimi said.
An eyewitness, 24-year-old Fazal Ahmad, told The National he saw "hundreds of injured civilians including children". Mr Ahmad's own cousin is among those injured. "I had just returned from Takhar and was on my way home when the explosion happened. As I got closer to the scene, I saw them take two injured people out of the site of the attack, and one of them was my cousin," he said, even as ambulances rushed two more injured men to the hospital.
Mr Ahmad’s cousin, Sayed Fazal Joya, is a member of the Afghan Green Trend Party and was at the office to participate in the first day of the election campaigns in Afghanistan.
“From what I understand, he jumped from the third floor building after the explosion, and was severely injured on his back. Big shards of glass are lodged in his back,” a worried Mr Ahmad said, while waiting for news of his cousin. “The building under attack has seven floors. I fear there are many more trapped and injured,” he added.
An Afghan official said there were concerns about the number of casualties as the attack took place as people were leaving work. Sunday was the start of the campaign for September’s delayed elections with 18 candidates for president, including the incumbent Mr Ghani.
There is, as yet, no official claim of responsibility for the incident although the country has been rocked by repeated attacks by the Taliban as well as ISIS. The Taliban has also carried out attacks during previous elections in a bid to derail the democratic process that they oppose.
"There were always standing threats against Green Trend, but we were made aware by the [National Directorate of Security] of a specific threat against our offices in the run-up to the election campaign," a party member who did not wish to be identified told The National. "We don't know yet who is behind this attack, no one has claimed responsibility. But take it from me, no matter what they say, it is the Taliban."
The attack came hours after the Taliban denied plans to hold direct talks with the Afghan government and rejected a statement by a senior minister that a meeting would take place in the next two weeks.
The Taliban reject the government in Kabul, calling them a puppet regime of the US, but are currently in talks with the US to end America’s longest and most expensive war. Despite the negotiations, deadly attacks by the insurgent group have continued. Earlier on Sunday, a Taliban suicide bomber killed four officers in an attack on a police station in the eastern Ghazni province.
Mr Ghani insisted that the direct talks with the Taliban would take place as he began his re-election campaign.
"Peace is coming and talks will definitely begin. We want to end this bloodshed," he said before the attack on Mr Saleh's party headquarters.
"Why I am running again is because I want to turn Afghanistan into a regional hub for trade and a centre of civilisation."
This isn’t first time an attempt has been made at the life of Mr Saleh’s, who served as the Afghan spy chief and later as the Minister of Interiors. An attack on his house in November last year was averted by the security forces.
Mr Saleh is popular among the masses for his reforms to the Afghan police forces and for his strong criticism of the Taliban. Earlier this year he had rejected claims by the Taliban and security analysts that insurgents control nearly half of Afghanistan, and invited critics to “join us for a tour of the country by road, by plane, by bike, on horse and by foot”.
Among the 17 other candidates running in elections slated for September 28 are Abdullah Abdullah, who currently serves as the president's chief executive under a power-sharing arrangement brokered by the US after the 2014 election, Hanif Atmar, a former intelligence chief like Mr Saleh, and Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, a former warlord in the anti-Soviet Mujahideen.
But Sunday's attack raises questions about Afghanistan's ability to stage an election without first ending the Taliban insurgency. Parliamentary elections last October were marred by attacks on candidates and polling facilities and voting had to be postponed in several areas. There were also widespread accusations of fraud and mismanagement.
The election has become inextricably linked with the peace process, which has grabbed headlines for months but is yet to produce a major breakthrough.
The US peace envoy Zalmay Khalilzad, who is currently visiting Kabul, has held several rounds of talks with the Taliban in recent months in a bid to end America’s longest war. The two sides appear to be closing in on an agreement in which the US would withdraw its forces in return for a pledge from the Taliban to keep the country from being used as a launch pad for global attacks.
He is expected to fly to Doha, where the Taliban have set up a political office, this week for what would be the eighth round of direct US-Taliban talks.