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An attack on a maternity hospital in Kabul that was described by U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo as “sheer evil” has left 24 people dead including two newborn babies, and left the fragile Afghan peace process in tatters.
Three gunmen disguised as police stormed the Dasht-e-Barchi maternity hospital in the west of the Afghan capital Tuesday, sparking a fierce firefight with security forces who evacuated at least 100 people.
Harrowing images from the aftermath circulated by Afghanistan’s government showed two dead children, and a dead woman clutching her baby, who was later confirmed to have survived. Afghan officials said Wednesday the death toll had risen to 24, from an initial count of 14.
The assault, carried out by as yet unknown attackers and described by Afghanistan’s government and international groups as a war crime, has undermined fragile moves towards peace in the war-ravaged country.
In February, the U.S. and the Taliban struck a withdrawal agreement intended to lead to peace talks between the Afghan government and the Islamist militant group. Since then, Afghan troops had held off from attacking militant groups. But on Tuesday, Afghan President Ashraf Ghani said that stance was over, and that offensive operations would resume.
“In order to provide security for public places and to thwart attacks and threats from the Taliban and other terrorist groups, I am ordering Afghan security forces to switch from an active defense mode to an offensive one, and to start their operations against the enemies,” he said in a televised address.
National Security Advisor Hamdullah Mohib said on Twitter that recent violence showed that the “Taliban and their sponsors do not and did not intend to pursue peace.”
“If the Taliban can not control the violence… then [there] seems little point in continuing to engage Taliban in peace talks,” he said.
Meanwhile, the Taliban has denied any responsibility for the hospital attack, and blamed the government for failing to advance the peace process.
“Unfortunately the opposite side failed to live up to their commitments,” Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid said on Twitter Wednesday, referring to the Afghan government’s refusal to engage in a prisoner swap intended to lead to talks between the government and the Taliban.
Afghanistan is no stranger to bloody atrocities, but the attack on the busy maternity hospital has provoked new levels of outrage. Afghan Interior Ministry spokesman Tareq Arian described the attack as an "act against humanity and a war crime,” while Pompeo condemned it as “unconscionable.”
“Any attack on innocents is unforgivable, but to attack infants and women in labor in the sanctuary of a hospital is an act of sheer evil,” he said in a statement.
Noting that the Taliban had denied any role in the attack and condemned the loss of life, he urged the Afghan government and the Taliban to “cooperate to bring the perpetrators to justice” and encouraged them to move towards peace talks.
“As long as there is no sustained reduction in violence and insufficient progress towards a negotiated political settlement, Afghanistan will remain vulnerable to terrorism,” he said.
Human Rights Watch said the attack was an apparent war crime, and noted it had happened in a predominantly Shia neighborhood that had previously been the target of sectarian attacks by ISIS’s Afghanistan affiliate, known as ISIS-K.
“An attack on a maternity clinic is simply unspeakable,” said Patricia Gossman, the group’s associate Asia director. Timothy Bishop, Save the Children’s Afghanistan country director, said the attack was an “indisputable” war crime. “Newborn babies and women in labor were killed in cold blood,” he said Wednesday.
The attack happened the same day that a suicide bomber attacked the funeral of a police commander in Nangarhar province, killing at least 26 people and wounding 68. ISIS claimed responsibility for that attack, according to global security firm Flashpoint Intelligence.
The U.S. withdrawal deal has done nothing to stop fighting between the Taliban and Afghan government forces, according to Reuters' reporting, which said that Taliban attacks have increased since U.S. troops started pulling out. Afghanistan’s National Directorate of Security said Wednesday that between the signing of the withdrawal deal with the U.S. and Monday, the Taliban conducted 3,712 attacks, killing 469 civilians and wounding 948 others.
Cover: An Afghan security officer carries a baby after gunmen attacked a maternity hospital, in Kabul, Afghanistan, Tuesday, May 12, 2020. Gunmen stormed the hospital in the western part of Kabul on Tuesday, setting off a shootout with the police and killing several people. (AP Photo/Rahmat Gul)
This article originally appeared on VICE US.