At least 80 people were killed in a massive blast which ripped through the diplomatic quarter of the Afghan capital Kabul early Wednesday, the health ministry said, warning the toll would rise further.
“Unfortunately the toll has reached 80 martyred (killed) and over 300 wounded, including many women and children,” said ministry spokesman Waheed Majroh, adding the figures would continue to climb as more bodies are pulled from the debris.
The explosion occurred during the morning rush hour in a busy part of the Afghan capital that houses many foreign embassies and government departments.
Bodies littered the scene and a huge plume of smoke rose from the area. However, it was not immediately clear what the target was.
Witnesses described dozens of cars choking the roads as wounded survivors and panicked schoolgirls sought safety, with men and woman struggling to get through security checkpoints to search for loved ones.
“A car bomb” exploded at 8:25am, Najib Danish, an interior ministry spokesman, told AFP.
“By God’s grace, Indian Embassy staff are safe in the massive #Kabul blast,” India’s foreign minister Sushma Swaraj tweeted. The Indian embassy is among those close to the area.
It is unclear whether German embassy staff in Kabul were injured or hurt when the car bomb exploded in its vicinity, a security source said.
“It’s unclear at the moment whether German staff have been affected,” the source told Reuters.
The source had earlier said, based on information available at the time, it did not seem that German staff had been injured or killed in the explosion.
There was no immediate claim of responsibility, but the attack came as the resurgent Taliban are stepping up their annual “spring offensive”.
The militant Islamic State (IS) group has also claimed responsibility for several recent bombings in the Afghan capital, including a powerful blast targeting an armoured Nato convoy that killed at least eight people and wounded 28 on May 3.
Wednesday’s attack underscores spiralling insecurity in Afghanistan, where Afghan forces beset by soaring causalities and desertions are struggling to beat back the insurgents. More than one third of the country is outside government control.
Afghan troops are backed by US and Nato forces, and the Pentagon has reportedly asked the White House to send thousands more troops to the country to break the deadlocked fight against the Taliban.
US troops in Afghanistan number about 8,400 today, and there are another 5,000 from Nato allies, who also mainly serve in an advisory capacity — a far cry from the US presence of more than 100,000 six years ago.
Pentagon chief Jim Mattis has warned of “another tough year” for both foreign troops and local forces in Afghanistan.
The blast was the latest in a long line of attacks in Kabul. The province surrounding the capital had the highest number of casualties in the first three months of 2017 thanks to multiple attacks in the city, with civilians bearing the brunt of the violence.