Scores of civilians have been killed after a massive explosion in a highly secure diplomatic area of Kabul left 64 people dead and wounded more than 300, the Afghan interior ministry has said.
The attack is the deadliest in the Afghan capital since an Isis suicide bomber killed nearly 100 people at a protest last summer.
The huge blast occurred close to the German embassy in the Wazir Akbar Khan area of the capital on Wednesday morning, sending clouds of black smoke spiraling into the sky near the presidential palace and foreign embassies.
It took place at the peak of Kabul’s rush-hour when the streets were packed with commuters and just days into the Muslim holy month of Ramadan.
Witnesses described dozens of cars choking the roads as wounded survivors and panicked schoolchildren sought safety, with people struggling to get through security checkpoints to search for loved ones.
No group has claimed responsibility but both the Taliban and Isis have staged large-scale attacks in the city. The Afghan president, Ashraf Ghani, condemned the attack. “The terrorists, even in the holy month of Ramadan, the month of goodness, blessing and prayer, are not stopping the killing of our innocent people,” he said in a statement.
Basir Mujahid, a spokesman for Kabul police, said the bomb had struck close to the fortified entrance to the German embassy.
“It was a car bomb near the German embassy, but there are several other important compounds and offices near there too. It is hard to say what the exact target is,” Mujahid said.
The German foreign minister, Sigmar Gabriel, an Afghan security guard was killed in the blast and embassy employees wounded. He said all embassy workers were now safe and offered his condolences to the family of the slain guard.
A French minister, Marielle de Sarnez, said its embassy had been damaged but it was not known if there were any French victims. India’s foreign minister, Sushma Swaraj, tweeted that its staff were safe.
The attack was the deadliest seemingly targeting government or diplomatic buildings in Kabul since a Taliban suicide bomber and gunman killed more than 60 in an attack on intelligence headquarters in April 2016
Najib Danish, deputy spokesman for the Afghan interior ministry, said the blast was so large more than 30 vehicles were either destroyed or damaged.
While embassies and government buildings in the area are located behind fortified security walls, the road where the car bomb detonated is open to the public. Connecting two main traffic circles, the strip is always busy with civilian pedestrians and drivers, particularly in the morning.
Elias Naser, a clerk at the nearby Azizi Bank, said: “First, it felt like an earthquake, then everything came down, windows, the ceiling. “The electricity cut out.”
Houses hundreds of metres away from the explosion were damaged, with windows and doors blown off their hinges. The blast was loud enough to wake some residents. Reports from journalists inside Kabul said the explosion shook their houses and shattered windows.
At the Amani School, close to the explosion site, groups of schoolchildren streamed through the police barricades two hours after the blast. Some looked visibly shaken after being kept in the school for hours, while others held on to worried-looking parents who had come to fetch them.
Shortly after the explosion, police had closed off the bomb site over a radius of a few hundred metres. Outside the police barrier, close to the Emergency Hospital, bystanders assessed the damage. Shopkeepers were sweeping broken glass off the pavement.
Entezar, a barber, said he was inside his shop when the explosion happened. “The whole window blew out,” he said, pointing to his facade.
Outside the Emergency Hospital, guards were fending off people searching for injured relatives. Crying women banged on the gates to be let in. “My colleague is in there,” said one woman, describing how her co-worker had been burned in the face.
While there was no immediate claim of responsibility, but the attack came as the resurgent Taliban are stepping up their annual “spring offensive”.
Islamic State has also claimed responsibility for several recent bombings in the Afghan capital, including a powerful blast targeting an armoured Nato convoy that killed at least eight people and wounded 28 on 3 May.
Pentagon chief Jim Mattis has warned of “another tough year” for both foreign troops and local forces in Afghanistan, where more than one-third of the country is outside of government control.
The blast was the latest in a long line of attacks in the Afghan capital. Kabul province had the highest number of casualties in the first three months of 2017 thanks to multiple attacks in the city, with civilians bearing the brunt of the violence.