Taliban claims deadly car bomb attack in Kabul

by Mushtaq MOJADDIDI

Kabul (AFP) - A car bomb explosion claimed by the Taliban in Kabul on Saturday killed at least two civilians, as the militants maintain pressure on the capital amid growing calls for peace talks.

Several others were wounded in the morning rush-hour suicide blast in an industrial area of the city that the Afghan interior ministry said had intended to strike global security company G4S.

It was the fourth suicide attack in Kabul in three weeks and comes days after the top US general in Afghanistan said protecting the war-weary city was "our main effort".

It also comes as the Taliban faces growing pressure to take up Afghan President Ashraf Ghani's offer last month of peace talks to end the 16-year war.

"Around 9:10 am this morning a suicide car bomb exploded in Police District Nine of Kabul," interior ministry spokesman Najib Danish told AFP.

Two civilians were killed and three others were wounded in the attack, Danish said. The blast happened at a time when many people would have been driving to their offices on the first day of Afghanistan's working week.

Health ministry spokesman Wahid Majrooh told AFP at least four people had been wounded in the explosion.

Deputy interior ministry spokesman Nasrat Rahimi said the suicide bomber had been driving towards G4S but "detonated himself before reaching the target".

In a WhatsApp message sent to journalists Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid said the bomber had targeted a convoy of "foreign troops".

"All occupiers were killed," Mujahid said.

The Taliban routinely exaggerates the number of people killed in its attacks, while Afghan officials tend to understate the casualty toll.

The attack comes weeks before the start of the spring fighting season which is expected to be more intense this year as militants respond to intensifying US and Afghan air strikes and ground offensives.

- Kabul a priority -

Saturday's assault comes after General John Nicholson, who leads US and NATO forces in Afghanistan, said protecting the city was a priority for foreign forces.

"Kabul is our main effort right now, to harden Kabul, to protect the people of Kabul and the international community that are here because of the strategic impact that has and the importance to the campaign," Nicholson told reporters on Wednesday.

But Nicholson conceded that preventing further attacks would be challenging in the sprawling city that is poorly mapped and extremely porous.

Taliban and Islamic State militants have been ramping up attacks in Kabul in recent months, increasing pressure on the Afghan government, which is frequently lambasted for its inability to protect civilians.

The most recent was on March 9 when a suicide bomber blew himself up in a Shiite area of the city, killing at least nine people. IS claimed responsibility as it seeks to stir up sectarian violence in the Sunni-majority country.

- Resurgent Taliban -

In a surprise visit to Kabul on Tuesday, US Defense Secretary Jim Mattis said "elements" of the Taliban were open to peace talks with the Afghan government.

But so far Afghanistan's largest militant group has given only a muted response to Ghani's February 28 proposal made at an international conference in Kabul and has continued to launch deadly attacks across the country.

And US data suggests the group has few reasons to negotiate right now.

The Taliban has been resurgent since the withdrawal of US-led NATO combat troops at the end of 2014, taking back territory and devastating Afghanistan's beleaguered security forces.

In October, insurgents controlled or influenced nearly half of Afghanistan's districts -- double the percentage in 2015, the US government's office of the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction said in January.

Over the same period, the watchdog said, the number of districts under Afghan government control or influence fell to its lowest level since December 2015.