JALALABAD, Afghanistan (Reuters) – Gunmen stormed a government building in Afghanistan’s eastern city of Jalalabad on Tuesday, taking dozens of hostages after a suicide bomber blew himself up at the entrance gate, officials and witnesses said.
Afghan security forces arrive at an area where explosions and gunshots were heard, in Jalalabad city, Afghanistan, July 31, 2018. REUTERS/Parwiz
There was no immediate claim of responsibility, though the Taliban issued a statement denying involvement and a spate of deadly attacks on the city in recent weeks has been seen as a show of force by the Islamic State militant group.
One witness, a passerby named Obaidullah, said Tuesday’s attack began when a black car with three occupants pulled up at the entrance to a building used by the department of refugee affairs and a gunman emerged, firing around him.
One attacker blew himself up at the gate and two gunmen entered the building, in an area close to shops and government offices, he added.
Minutes later, the car blew up, wounding people in the street, Obaidullah said.
“We saw several people wounded and helped to carry them away,” he added.
Eight wounded have been taken to city hospitals, officials said, but with fighting still going on, the number of casualties is likely to climb.
As security forces cordoned off the area, gunshots and what appeared to be hand grenade explosions could be heard as a cloud of black smoke drifted into the sky.
Sohrab Qaderi, a member of the local provincial council, said about 40 people appeared to be caught inside the building, which caught fire early in the attack.
One hostage had called the security services, saying the attackers had ordered people within not to move, Qaderi said.
Provincial government spokesman Attaullah Khogyani said the attack happened during a meeting with NGOs working on refugee-related issues. The head of the department and several other people were taken to safety, he said.
Although it is unclear whether there is any direct connection, Islamic State attacks have picked up as hopes for peace talks between the government and the Taliban have grown in the wake of last month’s three-day ceasefire.
The attacks have been concentrated in Jalalabad, the main city of Nangarhar province, on the border with Pakistan where Islamic State fighters first appeared toward the end of 2014.
The casualties add to a mounting toll in Afghanistan. In the western province of Farah, 11 people were killed when their bus was hit by a roadside bomb, officials said.
Also on Tuesday, unknown attackers seized 22 people from vehicles on a highway linking Kabul and Gardez, a key city in the eastern province of Paktia.
Reporting by Ahmad Sultan, Rafiq Shirzad, Abdul Qadir Sediqi; Editing by Clarence Fernandez