KABUL — Hundreds of protesters gathered outside a compound housing foreign nationals on Tuesday, calling for it to be shut down just hours after a bomb targeting the facility killed at least 16 people and wounded more than 100 others.
The powerful tractor bomb exploded around 10 p.m. Monday outside the Green Village, a large compound in eastern Kabul where a number of international organizations are based. The blast came even as the top U.S. negotiator in peace talks with the Taliban appeared on Afghan television and said U.S. and Taliban officials had reached a draft agreement “in principle.”
The attack shook Kabul and reignited fears that Taliban violence against civilians is on the rise, despite U.S. envoy Zalmay Khalilzad’s announcement. According to the draft agreement that Khalilzad described Monday, 5,400 U.S. troops would exit Afghanistan within about five months after a deal is signed.
The Taliban quickly asserted responsibility for Monday night’s attack, saying in a statement that it had targeted “foreign invaders.” But initial reports suggested that the victims were entirely Afghans, including three members of the security forces. Officials said about 400 foreign nationals were evacuated from the heavily guarded premises.
Monday’s bombing was the latest in a series of deadly Taliban attacks over recent days that have left Afghan civilians on high alert, even as U.S. and Taliban officials have said a peace deal is near. The Taliban refused to include the Afghan government in peace talks with the United States, and civilians have long feared a peace deal with Washington could lead the Taliban to return to power.
Davood Moradian, director of the Afghan Center for Strategic Studies, said the Taliban continues to see force as leverage “against the Afghan government as they did with Washington.”
“They are not a conventional political force who care about the political opinion or winning the hearts and minds of civilians,” he said. “They want to further weaken the morale of the Afghan security forces and further delegitimize the Afghan government.”
On Saturday, as Khalilzad wrapped up his ninth round of peace talks with the Taliban in Qatar, the militant group launched a large-scale assault on Kunduz, in northern Afghanistan, attacking the city from multiple angles as Afghan forces tried to repel them. Later that evening, a suicide bomber detonated in a busy traffic circle, killing at least 10 people, including the police spokesman. Khalilzad tweeted that he raised the Kunduz attack with Taliban officials in Doha and told them “that such violence should be stopped.”
But on Sunday morning, Taliban fighters attacked another key northern city, Pol-e-Khomri and managed to block a key highway that connects the north to Kabul. Khalilzad flew to Kabul later that day to brief Afghan officials on the draft deal, tweeting that he was “on the threshold” of securing an agreement.
Former U.S. Ambassador to Afghanistan Ronald E. Neumann said that “the pattern of such negotiations is that you fight and talk at the same time.”
“Fighting is how you keep your pressure in negotiations,” he said. “The big question is, are we going to leave the Afghan government in a position where it can negotiate or are we leaving it in a position where the Taliban think they are going for a military victory?”
On Tuesday, presidential spokesman Sediq Sediqqi tweeted photos from the aftermath of the bombing outside the Green Village.
“This what the Taliban are up to in Afghanistan; totally committed to total destruction,” he wrote. “Can they be trusted!!??”
Monday’s bombing was the second time the Taliban has attacked the Green Village this year, stoking tensions among Afghans living nearby who have borne the brunt of casualties.
In January, five people, including an Indian citizen, were killed in another Taliban attack on the compound. More than 100 others were wounded.
On Tuesday afternoon, plumes of smoke were still rising in the air and glass from blown-out windows littered the streets. Riot police were working to disperse the remaining protesters.
Abdul Qader Hakimi, 57, a vegetable seller whose shop and house are both close to the Green Village, said the windows on his home shattered in January and again on Monday night as the result of the attacks on the compound.
“Every time [Green Village] is attacked, civilians get killed and wounded,” he said, adding that a residential neighborhood is not the right location for a guarded compound housing foreigners. “People’s houses have been damaged many times.”
One of his distant relatives was killed in the January blast, he said, and his wife fainted on Monday night after the massive explosion shook their neighborhood.
“We will continue our protest until Green Village and other [compounds] nearby are removed from the neighborhood,” he said.
Zabihullah Hotak, 21, a high school student, said he had lost three friends to explosions in the neighborhood. He said police opened fire on protesters Tuesday morning and that he saw one with a bullet wound to his abdomen.
“Local residents get hurt when the explosions happen,” Hotak said, pledging that protests would continue until the compound moves.
Footage from the scene showed extensive damage to the area, with a number of collapsed structures and a large crater where the explosion took place. Mud homes near the compound caved in from the impact. A gas station nearby also caught fire.
On Tuesday, Interior Ministry spokesman Nasrat Rahimi said the protest was unauthorized and that some civilians tried to force their way into the compound but were repelled by police.
He said only three people were wounded when a fight broke out among protesters.
Sayed Salahuddin contributed to this report.