Dozens were killed and more than 300 injured on Tuesday in a suicide attack on the headquarters of an elite military unit in central Kabul, one of the group’s bloodiest ever attacks in the Afghan capital.
The violence marked the start of the Taliban’s annual “spring offensive”, named this year for former leader Mullah Omar.
The scale of the attack, after months of Taliban advances around the country, has heightened fears that faces one of the most violent years since Omar and his government were toppled from power in 2001.
The violence began just before 9am local time, when a truck packed with hundreds of kilograms of explosives was rammed into the compound of a security force that protects Afghan VIPs and government officials.
At least one fighter dressed in military uniform raced inside and battled police with an assault rifle. Outside there was carnage on streets that had been crowded with people waiting at a nearby bus stop, or on their way to work or school.
“First it felt like an earthquake, and then came the powerful sound of the explosion. I looked around, and everything was full of dust,” said Gol Rabi Stanikzai, a police commander who was at the scene when the bomb went off.
“All the way down here, people were injured,” he said, gesturing to several hundred metres of mangled shopfronts and shattered glass along the Kabul river.
At least 30 people were killed, most of them civilians, said Sediq Sediqqi, an Afghan interior ministry spokesman. That number is expected to rise as some of the injured lose their battle, and more details emerge of what happened inside the heavily guarded military compound.
It was the deadliest attack in Kabul since at least 2011, when a bombing at a Shia shrine killed more than 50 people. That attacker used smaller amounts of explosive to target victims packed closely together, apparently carried in a backpack.
The truck bomb should have passed through security checkpoints to reach a part of the city just a few hundred metres from the presidential palace, other security compounds and most foreign embassies, raising serious questions about security in the capital.
“With no doubt there was a security vacuum and that needs to investigated,” Sediqqi told the Associated Press.
There was so much explosive used that it was felt on the other side of the city and shattered windows up to a kilometre away, and caused large numbers of injuries.
A spokesman for the public health ministry put the number of wounded at 327, and Mohammad Aref, a 20-year-old shop owner whose windows were shattered by the explosion, said he personally saw at least 50 wounded people being carried away. “The clothes of many of them were soaked in blood,” he said.
Baryalai Sarwari, 20, who owns an electronics shop close to the site of the attack, said the explosion showered his uncle and infant nephew in glass. Both survived, but he saw many who didn’t.
“All the dead today were civilians,” he said in response to the Taliban spokesman’s claim that the group targeted its enemies in government.
The Afghan president, Ashraf Ghani, condemned the attack as a cowardly attempt to grab headlines by a group that could not claim territory. It “clearly shows the enemy’s defeat in face-to-face battle with Afghan security forces”, he said in a statement.
Few Afghans are likely to be reassured by that message, at a time when the Taliban are increasingly bold and civilian casualties from fighting continue to rise.
The insurgents last week , where last year they captured the provincial capital for several days.
It was the first time they had held an important town since being ousted in 2001, although local officials say security has now improved in the city and the Taliban have been pushed back in other parts of the country.
The Taliban’s renewed military confidence comes as Afghan government efforts to restart peace talks, backed by its international allies, are faltering. It has for months been trying to convince the insurgents back to the table, but so far to no avail.
While the spring fighting season normally heralds intensified attacks, winter was unusually violent, with sustained Taliban offensives around the country and several attacks on the capital, causing mostly civilian victims.
In January, the Taliban in Kabul frequented by foreigners and affluent Afghans, killing a guard and a 12-year-old boy. Later that month, they in an assault on one of the media group’s buses.
On Sunday, the UN documenting an increase in civilian casualties in the first three months of 2016. The report showed that while the Taliban have scaled down their use of improvised explosive devices and targeted killings, the militants are increasingly using complex and suicide attacks in populated areas.