Michael Safi @safimichael
Islamic State has claimed responsibility for an attack on a Kabul military hospital by gunmen disguised as doctors who entered the facility and battled security forces for hours.
At least 38 people died and dozens more were injured, the hospital said.
The attack began with a suicide bombing at the rear of the hospital complex in the Afghan capital. Officials said at least three gunmen dressed as medical staff then entered the 400-bed Sardar Mohammad Daud Khan facility and took up positions on the upper floors.
A second explosion was heard as Afghan special forces engaged the gunmen and “heavy fighting” ensued, a defence ministry spokesman said. An earlier death toll of three was revised upwards after security forces carried out checks in the aftermath of the fighting.
Isis’s Afghan wing has claimed responsibility, according to a report by the Isis-affiliated Amaq news agency. A November suicide attack on a crowded mosque, claimed by the same group, killed more than 30 people and wounded dozens.
Isis was also accused by local officials of killing six Red Cross employees in an ambush on a convoy in northern Afghanistan last month. It has claimed at least two other attacks on minority Shias in Kabul since last July.
Afghanistan’s president, Ashraf Ghani, said the latest attack “trampled on all human values”. “In all religions, a hospital is regarded as an immune site and attacking it is attacking the whole of Afghanistan,” he said, during an address in Kabul for International Women’s Day.
Abdul Qadir, a hospital employee, told Reuters he saw a gunman dressed in a white doctor’s coat take out an AK-47 assault rifle and open fire, killing at least one patient and a hospital worker.
Reuters reported that patients could be seen climbing out of the building and sheltering on window ledges outside the hospital, across the road from the heavily fortified US embassy.
Isis has been active in Afghanistan since 2014 but maintains a far smaller presence – and poses far less of an existential threat to the Afghan state – than the Taliban, who continue to be responsible for the majority of violence in the country.
Hundreds of US airstrikes in the past year have helped to limit the group’s influence to a handful of districts in and around the eastern Nangarhar province, though Wednesday’s attack showed it continues to have the ability to strike outside those areas.
Gen John Nicholson, the most senior US commander in Afghanistan, has claimed American efforts have killed about one-third of Isis’s fighters and shrunk its territory by two-thirds.
The Afghan affiliate’s leader, Hafiz Saeed Khan, was killed in a US drone strike in August.
The group’s support among local people has also been limited by its trademark brutality and imposition of a blinkered vision of Islam – including bans on smoking and poppy cultivation and the annulment of government-officiated weddings – in spite of local customs.
Analysts have put the number of Isis fighters in Afghanistan at up to 2,000, though a close assessment is difficult to establish because of the uncertain toll of casualties and success of recruitment drives.
The Taliban claimed an attack last week on a police station and intelligence service office in the capital that killed and wounded dozens.