Kabul, Afghanistan – A powerful midday blast on the grounds of the heavily guarded national military hospital in Afghanistan’s capital killed six Afghan medical students and wounded 23 others, government officials said.
Gen. Zahir Azimi, a spokesman for the Defense Ministry, said a sole suicide attacker targeted a tent outside the multistory hospital where the students were sitting down to lunch. Investigators were still trying to determine how the attacker infiltrated the grounds, bypassing military checkpoints at every entrance. The Taliban quickly claimed responsibility for the blast.
The Sardar Mohammad Daud Khan Hospital, a 400-bed facility, provides medical care to Afghan National Army soldiers and their families and is considered one of the best-equipped medical facilities in the country. It also serves as a training ground for doctors and medics. Several foreign doctors serve there as trainers, but General Azimi said no foreigners were among the dead.
“The enemies of Afghanistan are so cruel and spiritless that they even attack patients and doctors of the hospital, which is against Islamic laws and principles,” President Hamid Karzai said in a statement, calling the attack a “wild act” against human and religious values.
The United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan called the attack on a hospital prohibited under international humanitarian law.
The explosion could be heard from several miles away, rattling buildings.
“I was in the operating room treating a wounded soldier when I heard a big blast from the back of the operations theater,” Yakub Norzai, a senior doctor at the facility, said by telephone.
Dr. Norzai said the hallway outside the operating room was filled with people injured from the blast.
The attack is sure to reignite concerns about insurgent infiltrators within the ranks of the Afghan security forces, as well as sympathizers working within the government. All vehicles and visitors are supposed to be searched before entering the compound.
The medical facility is in the Wazir Akbar Khan neighborhood, home to numerous Western embassies and NATO facilities. It sits across from the Indira Gandhi hospital for children, which was not damaged.
As investigators searched the hospital grounds, dozens of friends and relatives of workers and patients crowded outside the police lines anxious for news, which was slow in coming.
“My brother was in there,” said Rahima Jan, 29, a doctor at a nearby medical facility, who said her brother was a custodian at the hospital. “I keep trying to call him but his phone is off, and no one is letting us inside.”
Zabiullah Mujaheed, a spokesman for the Taliban, said in a statement e-mailed to reporters that two attackers had been involved and killed “51 Afghan mercenary doctors and foreign trainers.” Taliban claims of casualty counts are often exaggerated.
NATO officials have said they expect increased violence this spring and summer as international troops begin drawing down their presence in July. The United States and NATO plan to fully withdraw combat troops by the end of 2014.
In a memorandum to American and International Security Assistance Force troops this week, Gen. David H. Petraeus, the senior commander in Afghanistan, warned that “our enemies” are likely to pursue high profile attacks this summer in an attempt to show their continued capabilities in the face of NATO and Afghan gains.
“These attacks may increase the risk of civilian casualties,” he said.
The memorandum, made public Saturday, called on NATO troops, in the interest of protecting civilians, to “balance tactical aggressiveness with tactical patience — both of which are critical to achieving our objectives.”
The memo was issued May 15, just days before protesters rioted through the streets in the northern Afghan city of Taliqan in retaliation for a NATO night raid they claimed killed four civilians; NATO maintains the four, two of them women, were insurgents. The German Defense Ministry on Friday acknowledged its troops fired into the crowd of demonstrators as they tried to assault a small NATO base during the riots, wounding several and possibly killing at least one. A dozen people were killed during in the protests, mostly in clashes with police.
The article “Blast Hits Military Hospital in Afghan Capital” originally appeared in The New York Times.