Taliban suicide bombers killed at least 48 people and wounded dozens more in two blasts Tuesday – one at a campaign rally for the president and the other in Kabul – with the insurgents warning of more violence ahead of elections.
The first attack saw a motorcyclist detonate a suicide bomb at a checkpoint leading to a rally where President Ashraf Ghani was addressing supporters in Parwan province, just north of the capital, killing 26 and wounding 42.
Just over an hour later, another blast also claimed by the Taliban rocked central Kabul near the US embassy. Authorities initially did not give casualty figures, but later said 22 people had been killed and a further 38 wounded.
The explosions came after US President Donald Trump, objecting to a previous deadly Taliban blast, abruptly ended talks with the Islamist extremists earlier this month over a deal that would have allowed the US to begin withdrawing troops from its longest war.
In a statement sent to media claiming responsibility for both of Tuesday’s blasts, Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid said the attack near Ghani’s rally was deliberately aimed at disrupting the September 28 ballot.
“We already warned people not to attend election rallies. If they suffer any losses that is their own responsibility,” the statement said.
At the scene near Ghani’s rally, roughly an hour’s drive north of Kabul, the remains of a burnt motorcycle, with a body on top, were covered by a blanket, next to a badly damaged police car.
Women and children were among the casualties, Parwan hospital director Abdul Qasim Sangin told AFP.
The president was unhurt. He later condemned the attack, saying the incident proved the Taliban had no real interest in reconciliation.
“As the Taliban continue their crimes, they once again prove that they are not interested in peace and stability in Afghanistan,” Ghani said in a statement.
Sixty kilometers (40 miles) away in Kabul, a shopkeeper, Rahimullah, said he had been sitting inside his shop when the second blast came.
“The wave broke all the windows,” he told AFP.
“I rushed outside and saw several bodies just across the street. This is the second time in less than a month that a blast has broken our windows. I just fixed them a week ago.”
The UN’s mission in Afghanistan also criticized the Taliban, accusing them of showing “despicable disregard for civilian life & fundamental human right to participate in democratic process.”
These and other attacks “demonstrate blatant disregard for the people and institutions of Afghanistan,” US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said in a statement.
“For Afghans to truly reconcile, the Taliban must begin to demonstrate a genuine commitment to peace rather than continue the violence and destruction that causes such inordinate harm to the Afghan people and the future of their country,” Pompeo said.
The elections will see Ghani face off against his own Chief Executive, Abdullah Abdullah, and more than a dozen other candidates, including former warlords, ex-spies, and onetime members of the country’s former communist regime.
For weeks, the election had been sidelined by the US-Taliban talks, with many Afghans and observers expecting the vote to be cancelled if a deal was agreed. Even candidates did little in the way of campaigning.
But with the deal off, Ghani and his rivals have begun the race.
Ghani is seeking a clear mandate backing negotiations with the insurgents on a lasting peace in Afghanistan.
Trump’s declaration that the US-Taliban talks were “dead” spurred the insurgents to declare last week that the only other option was more fighting.
Observers had warned that the Taliban, who hope to weaken the future president, will do anything they can to upend the election.
Turnout for the vote is set to be low. Experts cite fear of violence and a loss of hope among voters following widespread fraud allegations during the 2014 election.