US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has condemned a militant attack on a maternity ward in Kabul, Afghanistan.
Two babies and 12 mothers and nurses were killed when several gunmen stormed the hospital on Tuesday morning.
Meanwhile, in the eastern province of Nangarhar, a bombing at a funeral killed at least 26 people.
Mr Pompeo said: “Any attack on innocents is unforgiveable, but to attack infants and women in labour… is an act of sheer evil.”
“Terrorists who attack mourners lining up for prayer at a funeral are only seeking to tear apart the bonds that hold families and communities together, but they will never succeed.”
He added: “During the holy month of Ramadan and amidst the threat of Covid-19, these dual attacks are particularly appalling.”
In the wake of the attacks, President Ashraf Ghani said he was ordering the resumption of offensive operations against the Taliban and other groups.
He accused the militants of ignoring repeated calls for a reduction in violence.
The Islamic State (IS) group said it was behind the attack on a police commander’s funeral in Nangarhar, in the east of the country. It is still not clear who carried out the attack at the Dasht-e-Barchi hospital, and the Taliban have denied any involvement.
What happened at the hospital?
The Kabul attack began at about 10:00 (05:30 GMT) on Tuesday, and locals described hearing two blasts then gunfire. One doctor who fled during the assault told the BBC about 140 people were in the hospital when the gunmen attacked.
A maternity ward in the hospital is run by the international medical charity Médecins sans Frontières (MSF) and some of those working there are foreigners.
Another doctor told AFP news agency that “total panic” took hold as the assault unfolded.
Ramazan Ali, a vendor who saw the attack begin, told Reuters news agency: “The attackers were shooting at anyone in this hospital without any reason… It’s a government hospital, and a lot of people bring in their women and children for treatment.”
Afghan special forces rescued 100 women and children, including three foreigners, an official told the BBC. The attackers, who reportedly had gained access dressed as police officers, were all killed by security personnel after a battle lasting hours.
Images from the scene showed soldiers carrying one newborn baby to safety, swaddled in a blood-stained blanket.
Many foreign staff live in a guesthouse behind the Dasht-e-Barchi Hospital and a doctor who fled the building told the BBC he saw an explosion there too.
In the past, similar attacks in this mostly Shia area of the capital have been attributed to IS. The group’s leader in South Asia and the Far East was arrested in Kabul on Tuesday, with two other high profile members, Afghan intelligence said.
In 2017, IS gunmen disguised as medical staff attacked Kabul’s main military hospital, prompting widespread shock and anger and raising questions about security. The authorities later confirmed about 50 people had been killed.
But the Taliban also attack hospitals. Last September, 20 people died after a truck packed with explosives was detonated by militants from the group outside a hospital in southern Zabul province.
On TV, Mr Ghani said: “In order to provide security for public places and to thwart attacks and threats from the Taliban and other terrorist groups, I’m ordering Afghan security forces to switch from an active defence mode to an offensive one and to resume their operations against the enemies.”
Fragile hope shaken
Even in a country which has seen the worst of the worst, this savage attack on newborn babies and their mothers has shocked, and shaken fragile hope this would be the year Afghanistan would finally start to turn towards peace.
Images of special forces in bulky body armour, carrying infants to safety, will remain long in the memory of those who have repeatedly called for a ceasefire – especially when Afghans are battling another deadly enemy in Covid-19.
Despite Taliban denials that this ghastly attack was their work, President Ghani’s denunciation reflects the anger and frustration of many. Some worry that groups like Islamic State, trying to drive an even greater wedge between Taliban and the government, have also killed for now what were slow uncertain steps toward peace talks.
And for those who have never trusted the Taliban’s commitment, this latest attack solidifies their resolve to keep fighting.
What happened at the funeral?
According to survivors, thousands of people had gathered in Nangarhar province for a local police commander’s funeral, and the bomb detonated about half-way through. Ataullah Khogyani, a spokesman for the governor, said 68 people were injured.
A member of the provincial council was among the at least 24 killed.
Tuesday’s attacks were widely condemned by countries around the world and human rights groups, with Amnesty International saying: “The unconscionable war crimes in Afghanistan today… must awaken the world to the horrors civilians continue to face.”
On Twitter, UK Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab said: “I’m horrified by the appalling terrorist attacks in Afghanistan today – including on a maternity hospital. Targeting mothers, their newborns and medical staff is despicable.”
Meanwhile, in northern Balkh province, at least 10 people were killed and many others injured in an air strike by US forces, reports said. Residents and the Taliban claimed the victims were all civilians, but the Afghan Defence Ministry said all those killed were militants.
What’s going on with Afghan peace talks?
Since a February troop withdrawal agreement signed between the US and the Taliban, talks between the Afghan government and the Taliban have broken down over a prisoner swap and violence has continued unabated.
The agreement was aimed at ending more than 18 years of war since US-led forces ousted the Taliban from power following the 9/11 attacks on the US, whose mastermind Osama Bin Laden had been given sanctuary by the hardline Islamist group.
Tens of thousands of people, most of them civilians, have been killed in the conflict. Many more have been injured or displaced from their homes.
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