KABUL, Afghanistan — A truck bombing near the Afghan presidential palace early Wednesday killed at least 80 people and wounded hundreds, officials said. The death toll seemed certain to rise, and the attack appeared to be one of the bloodiest of the long Afghan war
The huge blast during the morning rush hour caused panic in much of central Kabul, shattering windows as far as a mile away. Nearly two hours after the explosion near Zanbaq Square, a crowded area in the capital that leads to the presidential palace as well as major foreign embassies, plumes of smoke were still rising from the scene.
At a time when the United States is weighing sending more troops to Afghanistan to try to halt the government’s losses, the attack on Wednesday highlighted the continued ability of militants to strike even in the most secure parts of the capital. And outside the country’s main cities, the Taliban have rapidly been seizing territory and have kept the Afghan security forces badly bloodied and on the defensive.
At a news conference in Kabul, Gen. Murad Ali Murad, the deputy interior minister, said that more than 80 people had been killed and 463 wounded.
Kabul’s police chief, Gen. Hassan Shah Frogh, said the explosives used in the blast had been in a tanker truck used to empty septic tanks. The bomb was detonated near the square just as the street turns toward the German Embassy, he said. “The blast was so huge that it dug a big crater as deep as four meters,” or 13 feet, General Frogh said.
The German Embassy was extensively damaged, with dozens of windows blown in, the public broadcaster ARD reported. It broadcast images showing stunned civilians pressing makeshift bandages to bloody limbs, stumbling through a smoke-filled street as ambulances rushed to the scene, their sirens blaring.
Germany’s foreign minister, Sigmar Gabriel, said that an Afghan security guard employed by the embassy had been killed. He also said that several Germans had been wounded, without providing details. He condemned what he called an attack on “those who are in Afghanistan working with the people there for a better future.”
“To target these people is especially despicable,” Mr. Gabriel said.
There was no immediate claim of responsibility for the blast, and it was unclear whether the embassy had been specifically targeted. A spokesman for the Taliban, whose forces are responsible for most of the intensifying violence across Afghanistan, insisted that they were not behind the attack and condemned the toll on civilians.
But even that was no sure indication of who might be responsible. In recent years, the Taliban have frequently denied responsibility for attacks that intelligence officials believe the insurgents actually did commit. And militants loyal to the Islamic State have staged more attacks in recent months, though they have been smaller.
In Germany, the blast was sure to fuel a debate over the government’s efforts to repatriate Afghans whose applications for asylum have been rejected. About 1,000 German soldiers are stationed in Afghanistan as part of the NATO force, and Germany has invested billions in military and aid to stabilize the country.
German officials have been at pains to insist that parts of Afghanistan are safe, despite an overall security situation that the interior minister, Thomas de Maizière, has described as “complicated.” Hours after the blast, the government in Berlin said that a flight carrying deportees bound for Afghanistan scheduled for Wednesday had been postponed, citing logistical reasons for embassy employees on the ground.
President Ashraf Ghani called the attack “a crime against humanity.” A statement by Gen. John W. Nicholson Jr., the commander of American and North Atlantic Treaty Organization forces in Afghanistan, applauded the Afghan security forces for preventing the truck full of explosives from entering the Green Zone, a reference to the area that houses the headquarters of the coalition forces as well as several foreign embassies.
“The attack demonstrates a complete disregard for civilians and reveals the barbaric nature of the enemy faced by the Afghan people,” the statement said.
Pictures from the scene showed smoke and chaos, with bloodied people on the ground as emergency personnel tried to evacuate victims. Video footage that witnesses filmed immediately after the blast showed vast destruction to the buildings in the area and people stuck in destroyed vehicles amid flames.
There was a heavy security presence, including forces from the United States-led coalition, and helicopters circled overhead. Dozens of people waited outside the large security cordon for news of their loved ones.
Emotions were running high among the Afghan security forces at the scene. Intelligence officers closely checked the paperwork of emergency workers shuttling between the blast site and the hospitals, fearing that they might have been infiltrated by militants planning a follow-up attack.
At one point, after a senior police official tried to pass the cordon with a large entourage of guards, a scuffle broke out, and the police officers and intelligence officers cocked their weapons at one another. But the situation was quickly defused.
The sheer force of the blast was staggering, though it was not unprecedented. In 2015, a similar truck bombing in the Shah Shaheed neighborhood of the city also caused hundreds of casualties and left a strip of shops leveled and houses in a wide radius damaged. Other large truck bombings have targeted the offices of an elite force that provides security to senior government officials, as well as a compound for Western contractors.
Shopkeepers as far as a mile from the scene of Wednesday’s blast were sweeping glass from shattered windows, as parents arrived to escort panicking children home from school.
“There was a big tremble, and then we heard a massive explosion,” said Ramin Sangar, a cameraman at a television channel near the site of the explosion, as he was loaded into an ambulance. “All the windows are broken. Our studios collapsed.”
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Most of the victims appeared to be civilians on their way to work during the morning rush hour. A BBC driver, Mohammed Nazir, as well as Aziz Navin, an information technology worker for the Afghan television channel ToloNews, were among those killed.
Lotfullah Najafizada, the director of ToloNews, described a painful search for his colleague’s remains. He and his co-workers examined seven mostly unrecognizable bodies at the military hospital before heading over the civilian side, where the 44th body had just arrived.
“We found Aziz in a large, dirt-colored sack, and his relatives were trying to transport him home,” Mr. Najafizada wrote on Facebook. “The ambulances were busy, and Aziz waited in the hall of the hospital for his final trip home.”
Crowds were building throughout the day outside the main hospitals in Kabul as people searched for their loved ones among the wounded or dead.
More than 300 people anxiously waited outside the Emergency Hospital, one of the main trauma centers in the city. Some were weeping and wailing, while others were trying to look up names of loved ones on the lists that employees handed out. Inside the hospital, where the windows had also been shattered by the force of the blast, doctors were attending to dozens of wounded.
Outside Wazir Akbar Khan, the main government hospital, a white-bearded man in his 60s named Azizullah searched for news of his 22-year-old son, Abdullah, who worked at a telecommunications company near the site of the blast.
“I searched all hospitals. He is nowhere,” said Mr. Azizullah, who would crouch and then get up to pace. “Abdullah has two children, a wife and an old mother. What will I tell them?”
Mr. Azizullah received a call from someone who appeared to be inside the hospital, telling him about unrecognizable bodies.
“Can you search the person whose body is cut up?” he asked the caller. “He may be my son. Try to find his documents.”
Jawad Sukhanyar contributed reporting from Kabul, and Melissa Eddy from Berlin.