Newborns among dead in Kabul hospital attack

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Gunmen disguised as police attacked a hospital in Kabul killing 16 including two newborn babies from a maternity clinic run by international humanitarian organisation Doctors Without Borders.

In a separate attack a suicide bomber struck at the funeral of a police commander, attended by government officials and a member of parliament, in the eastern province Nangahar, killing 24 and injuring 68. Authorities said the toll could rise.

Islamic State Khorasan, the Afghan affiliate of the Islamic State militant group, claimed responsibility for the Nangahar bombing, the SITE Intelligence Group reported. Reuters could not immediately verify the report by SITE, which tracks online jihadist activity.

There was no immediate claim of responsibility for the Kabul attack. The Taliban, Afghanistan’s main Islamist insurgency group which says it has halted attacks on cities under a US troop withdrawal deal, denied involvement in either attack.

The Islamic State militant group operates in Nangahar and carried high-profile attacks in Kabul in recent months. On Monday security forces arrested its regional leader in the capital.

The violence risks derailing movement to US-brokered peace talks between the Taliban and an Afghan government long sceptical of the insurgents’ renunciation of attacks.

Ministry of Interior photos showed two young children dead in the hospital. An image showed a dead woman on the ground still holding her baby, who a nurse in the unit confirmed to Reuters survived and was moved to intensive care at another hospital.

President Ashraf Ghani condemned the attacks and said he ordered the military to switch to offensive mode rather than the defensive stance it adopted as the US withdraws troops and tries to broker talks.

“To provide security for public places and thwart attacks and threats from the Taliban and other terrorist groups, I order Afghan security forces to switch from an active defence mode to an offensive one and start  operations against the enemies,” he said in a televised speech.

National Security Advisor Hamdullah Mohib said on Twitter: “there seems little point in continuing to engage Taliban in peace talks”.

In a statement US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo condemned “two horrific terrorist attacks” in the strongest terms, noted the Taliban denied responsibility and said the lack of a peace deal left the country vulnerable to attacks.

Pompeo described the stalled peace effort, which planned for intra-Afghan peace talks to begin on March 10 but have yet to happen, as “a critical opportunity for Afghans to build a united front against the menace of terrorism.”

The Pentagon declined to comment on Ghani’s stated intent to restart offensive operations, saying the US military reserved the right to defend Afghan security forces if attacked by the Taliban.

MOTHERS, CHILDREN, NURSES

The Kabul attack began when at least three gunmen wearing police uniform entered the Dasht-e-Barchi hospital, throwing grenades and shooting, government officials said. Security forces later killed the attackers.

“The attackers were shooting at anyone without any reason. It’s a government hospital and a lot of people bring in women and children for treatment,” said Ramazan Ali, a vendor who saw the attack.

The 100 bed government-run hospital is home to a maternity clinic run by Doctors Without Borders, also known by its French name Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF).

Hours before the attack, MSF tweeted a photo of a newborn in his mother’s arms at the clinic after delivery by emergency caesarean section.

Interior and health ministry officials said mothers, nurses and children were among the dead and wounded.

Soldiers ferried infants out, some in blood-stained blankets and officials said 100 people were rescued, including three foreigners.

The neighbourhood is home Afghanistan’s Hazara community, a mostly Shia Muslim minority previously attacked by Sunni militants from Islamic State, including a March ceremony commemorating the death of a leader.

Countries including the United Kingdom, Germany, Turkey and Pakistan released statements condemning the violence.