Newborn babies among dozens killed in Afghanistan attacks

President Ghani has called on security forces to 'return to offensive mode' against the Taliban

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Dozens of people were killed in Afghanistan on Monday in separate militant attacks at a hospital in Kabul and a funeral in the country's east as violence flared again in the war-torn country.

Gunmen stormed a 100-bed hospital in western Kabul on Tuesday morning where aid group Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) runs a maternity clinic, killing at least 14 people, including two newborn babies, and injuring dozens.

The Ministry of Public Health said that both mothers and nurses were among the dead. MSF hasn’t yet commented on the attack, which has not been claimed by any group.

In a speech on Tuesday evening, President Ashraf Ghani ordered Afghan forces to actively fight terrorist groups in the country once more.

"In order to defend the country, the security and safety of the people and public facilities, and to repel and defeat the attacks and threats of the Taliban and all terrorist groups, I instruct the country's security and defence forces to return to offensive mode, instead of defensive mode,” Mr Ghani said.

The announcement could mark the end – or further delay – to prospects for direct talks between the Taliban and the Afghan government.

The country is witnessing almost daily violence, even after the attempts to pursue peace talks in an agreement signed by the Taliban and the US in February that laid out plans for the withdrawal of US troops.

Family members and expectant fathers – whose wives were inside the clinic to deliver babies as the attack on Tuesday unfolded – gathered outside the hospital in Kabul’s Dasht-e-Barchi neighbourhood.

The area is mostly home to Afghanistan’s Shia Hazara people, an ethnic minority that has seen a large number of targeted attacks, often carried out by ISIS.

Many were wailing and crying, waiting for news from inside the clinic. Soldiers emerged carrying newborn babies wrapped in blood-stained blankets and placed them in ambulances outside the hospital.

Dozens of people were trapped in the clinic as three attackers wearing police uniforms entered the building, shooting and throwing grenades. Eyewitnesses said they heard two separate explosions. Black smoke rose into the sky as Afghan security forces evacuated at least 80 people and killed the attackers.

MSF had been running the hospital’s maternity ward for the past five years, helping to deliver thousands of healthy babies.

The same day in eastern Afghanistan’s Nangarhar province, a suicide bomber targeted the funeral of a local police commander in Khewa district, killing at least 24 and injuring a further 70. A local government spokesman said the numbers are likely to rise.

“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. There must be accountability for these grave crimes,” Amnesty International said in a tweet.

There were no immediate claims for the attacks. Taliban spokesperson Zabiullah Mujahid denied both incidents, saying that they had “no relation with the Islamic Emirate.”

In eastern Khost province, a bomb planted in a cart in a market killed a child and wounded 10 people in a third attack on Tuesday, which was also unclaimed.

On Monday, Afghanistan’s spy agency, the National Directorate of Security, arrested three senior Islamic State members - including Abu Omar Khorasani, the group’s head of South Asia - and killed several others, said to be responsible for a number of attacks in Kabul, including one on a Sikh temple in March that left 25 dead.

On the same day, ISIS claimed several roadside blasts in Kabul that wounded four civilians.

Attacks have spiked across Afghanistan, despite calls for an international ceasefire during the coronavirus pandemic. Afghanistan has recorded nearly 5,000 covid-19 infections, but with limited testing available, numbers are likely to be much higher. In the past 24 hours, five people have died from the virus, bringing the country-wide death count to 127.

Yet conflict-related casualties have been much higher. Afghanistan’s Independent Human Rights Commission recorded at least 43 civilian deaths in the first ten days of Ramadan alone.

While the Taliban has pledged not to attack urban centres, assaults on security forces continue. On Sunday, the group ambushed a security post in Laghman, a province bordering Kabul, killing dozens of Afghanistan’s National Army soldiers.

The Ministry of Defence claimed the Taliban sustained “heavy casualties,” but numbers are disputed by the militants.

“The attacks of the last two months show us and the world that [the] Taliban and their sponsors do not and did not intend to pursue peace. Their attacks this spring against Afghans are comparable to the level of fighting in past fighting seasons,” National Security Advisor Hamdullah Mohib said.

1,293 civilians were wounded or killed in Kabul during the first quarter of 2020, according to UNAMA. Despite this being the lowest figure since 2012, violence grew considerably during March, and civilian deaths caused by anti-government groups increased by 22 per cent compared to the first four months of 2019.

Violence has been recorded on all sides of the conflict. Last week, at least six people were killed at a protest demanding aid and assistance during coronavirus lockdowns in the central Afghan Ghor province. Afghanistan’s Independent Human Rights Commission said they were looking into the "worrying reports of police firing on protesters.”

In the northern Balkh province, demonstrations erupted today over the death of ‘civilians’, reportedly killed in a US airstrike. Afghanistan’s Ministry of Defence said those targeted were Taliban members planting landmines.

The holy month was expected to be a quieter than usual in the war-torn country. Last year, the Taliban announced its annual spring offensive in April, a month ahead of Ramadan. This year, with the deal signed between the militants and the US, the Taliban has refrained from making the usual announcement to step up fighting, but violence has still escalated.

The ongoing spate of attacks has cast doubt on the future of the US-Taliban deal, which should have seen the start of direct negotiations between the militants and the Afghan government.

A standoff between President Ashraf Ghani and rival Abdullah Abdullah remains unresolved since the presidential inauguration two months ago. With most urban centres on lockdown to slow the spread of the coronavirus, poverty has peaked and crime levels risen as many grow increasingly desperate in times of extreme economic hardship.