Terrorists disguised as doctors stormed Afghanistan’s largest military hospital in Kabul on Wednesday and battled security forces for hours, killing 38 people and injuring 70 others in an attack claimed by Islamic State.
Dense clouds of smoke billowed out of the Sardar Daud Khan hospital, located across the road from the heavily fortified US embassy, and explosions and gunfire rattled Kabul’s diplomatic district. Medical staff hunkered down in hospital wards posted desperate messages for help on social media.
Dramatic footage on television showed helicopters dropping Afghan special forces on the roof of the multi-storey hospital as some hospital staff cowered on the ledge of a window.
“The attack in the capital’s central Wazir Akbar Khan neighbourhood has killed 38 people and wounded more than 70,” the Italian-run Emergency hospital said in a statement.
Watch | Afghan special forces dropped on the roof of the hospital by helicopter
The dead included doctors, patients and hospital staff, officials said. A seven-year-old boy was among the seriously injured.
A statement from Islamic State’s Amaq news agency said its fighters had attacked the hospital. The group also posted photos on social media that it said were taken by its fighters within the hospital.
A spokesman for the more powerful Afghan Taliban spokesman denied responsibility, saying the insurgency had “no connection” with the attack.
The Taliban is known to distance itself from attacks on medical facilities.
“Attackers are inside the hospital. Pray for us,” a hospital staff member wrote on Facebook.
Hospital administrators told AFP that three men wearing white laboratory coats began spraying bullets after a suicide bomber blew himself up at a backdoor entrance, sparking chaos inside the 400-bed facility.
“I saw one of the attackers, armed with an AK-47 and dressed as a doctor, shooting at patients and guards on the third floor,” hospital nurse Abdul Qadeer said.
“They shot my friend but I managed to flee...I had to jump over the barbed wire to escape.”
At least two other loud explosions – including one that the defence ministry said was a car bomb in the hospital’s parking lot – were heard as Afghan special forces launched a clearance operation that lasted around six hours.
The attackers were gunned down after special forces landed on the hospital’s roof in a helicopter.
The raid highlights how Afghanistan’s warring parties, including government forces, have repeatedly targeted medical facilities, decimating the country’s fragile health system and preventing conflict-displaced civilians from accessing life-saving care.
“This egregious and morally reprehensible attack targeted people at their most vulnerable, while they were receiving treatment in the hospital, and also targeted the medical staff caring for them,” said the UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan.
“This cowardly attack reflects a fundamental rejection of the most basic principles of humanity. Without question, it amounts to an atrocity, and the perpetrators must be held accountable.”
India described the attack as a “deplorable” expression of the designs of terrorists. The external affairs ministry said in a statement that India will continue to support Afghanistan in fighting terrorism.
“The heinous attack on a hospital is the most deplorable expression of the diabolical designs of terrorists and those who continue to provide safe havens and sanctuaries to terrorists,” the statement said.
The assault came just a week after 16 people were killed in simultaneous Taliban suicide assaults on two security compounds in Kabul. Dozens were wounded as a suicide car bomber struck an Afghan police precinct in western Kabul and a five-hour gun battle ensued after another attacker sneaked in.
In the second attack last week, a suicide bomber blew himself up at the gates of an Afghan intelligence agency branch in eastern Kabul.
The carnage underscores rising insecurity. Afghanistan is bracing for an intense fighting season in the spring as the government’s repeated bids to launch peace negotiations with the Taliban have failed.
Afghan forces, already beset by record casualties, desertions and non-existent “ghost soldiers” on the payroll, have been struggling to beat back the Taliban since US-led NATO troops ended their combat mission in December 2014.
Kabul last month endorsed US Gen John Nicholson’s call for thousands of additional coalition troops to hold off the militants before the spring offensive.
Extra troops were needed to end the stalemate in the war, Nicholson, the top US commander in Afghanistan, told the US Congress in what could be first major test of military strategy for President Donald Trump, who is yet to announce his policy for the war-torn country.
The Islamic State has established a solid presence on Afghanistan’s border with Pakistan and mounted several high-profile attacks on civilians in Kabul over the past year, including some on prominent Shia targets.