Taliban say ready to fight attacking Afghan forces

By Usman Sharifi, with Jay Deshmukh in Mumbai
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A woman sits next to newborn babies who lost their mothers following an attack on a Kabul maternity hospital

A woman sits next to newborn babies who lost their mothers following an attack on a Kabul maternity hospital (AFP Photo/STR)

Kabul (AFP) - The Taliban on Wednesday said they were prepared to battle Afghan forces after the president told troops to resume offensive operations following grisly attacks that have further unravelled a fragile peace process.

New details have emerged on Tuesday's assault on a Kabul maternity hospital, where at least 24 people including infants, mothers and nurses were killed. The daylight attack was followed by a blast at a funeral in the country's east that killed 32 mourners.

According to international humanitarian organisation Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF), or Doctors Without Borders, which runs the maternity wing at the Barchi Hospital in west Kabul, one woman gave birth during the lengthy attack.

"While pregnant women and babies were seeking health care in one of the most vulnerable states in life ... attackers stormed the maternity (unit) through a series of explosions and gunfire lasting for hours," MSF said in a statement.

The group said at least one Afghan colleague appeared to have been among those killed in the "revolting" attack.

President Ashraf Ghani blamed both that assault and the funeral bombing on the Taliban and the Islamic State group, ordering Afghan troops to "resume their operations against the enemy".

For weeks Afghan forces had been on a "defensive" posture to ease peace talks with the Taliban.

But the insurgents, who denied involvement in Tuesday's attacks, warned they were "fully prepared" to counter any strikes by Afghan forces.

"From now onwards the responsibility of further escalation of violence and its ramifications shall fall squarely on the shoulders of the Kabul administration," the Taliban said in a statement.

The aggressive threatens the fraying peace process just as Afghanistan grapples with a public health crisis triggered by the coronavirus pandemic.

The United Nations Security Council strongly condemned "the heinous and cowardly terrorist attacks."

"Deliberately targeting infants, children, mothers and health workers as such is especially abhorrent," a Council statement read, emphasising that "any acts of terrorism are criminal and unjustifiable."

- MSF tragedies -

MSF has experienced several tragedies in Afghanistan, including the shooting of five staff in 2004 in Badghis province, prompting the group to pull out of the war-torn nation after 24 years.

MSF returned in 2009. But in 2015, after the Taliban had seized the northern city of Kunduz, US air strikes destroyed an MSF trauma hospital, killing 42 people.

MSF said it opened the 55-bed maternity unit in Kabul in 2014, and has delivered more than 5,000 babies there since January 1.

Images of dead mothers and babies wrapped in blood-soaked blankets sparked international outrage.

Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, head of the World Health Organization, said he was "shocked and appalled" by the maternity hospital attack, and held a minute of silence in memory of the victims during a virtual press conference in Geneva.

The Taliban have not claimed any major attacks in Kabul and other cities since signing a deal with the United States in February for foreign forces to leave Afghanistan.

They have, however, regularly targeted Afghan forces.

Afghanistan's intelligence agency said Wednesday that since the US-Taliban deal the insurgents have carried out 3,712 terrorist attacks that have killed almost 500 civilians.

A political deadlock between Ghani and his rival Abdullah Abdullah is also seen as a sign of weakness by the Taliban.

Abdullah had previously served as Afghanistan's "chief executive" under an earlier power-sharing deal with Ghani, but lost that post after he was defeated by Ghani in a presidential election.

Instead of accepting defeat, Abdullah declared himself president, holding his own swearing-in ceremony on the same day Ghani was inaugurated.

- US pushes for peace -

The Taliban blamed the Islamic State group and elements of the government's intelligence units for the latest attacks.

IS have claimed the funeral bombing, but no group has admitted responsibility for the hospital attack.

Top US officials, including Secretary of State Mike Pompeo who noted the Taliban's denial of responsibility, urged the Afghan government and the militant group to cooperate to ensure a peace process succeeds.

"Failure to do so leaves Afghanistan vulnerable to terrorism, perpetual instability and economic hardship," Zalmay Khalilzad, the US special envoy who negotiated the deal with the Taliban, said on Twitter.

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