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Powerful bomb blast rocks Afghan capital, scores wounded

KABUL, Afghanistan (AP) — A powerful bomb blast rocked the Afghan capital early Monday, rattling windows, sending smoke billowing from Kabul’s downtown area and wounding at least 65 people, including nine children hurt by flying glass, officials and a medic said.

The explosion occurred as the streets in the capital were packed with morning commuters. Officials and police were at the scene of the blast and few details were available. Ambulance sirens screamed throughout the downtown area as they rushed to the scene.

This framegrab taken from AFPTV shows a plume of smoke after an explosion in Kabul on July 1, 2019. – Dozens of people were wounded with fatalities feared as a powerful car bomb rocked Kabul early July 1, followed by gunmen battling special forces in an area housing military and government buildings, officials said. (Photo by Rateb NOORI / AFP) (Photo credit should read RATEB NOORI/AFP/Getty Images)

Mohammad Karim, a police official in the area of the attack, said a car bomb exploded outside a Defense Ministry building. Militants then ran into a nearby high-rise located in a crowded market and began firing down on the ministry. Police and special Afghan security forces were swarming the area and cordoned it off.

A restaurant owner in the area, Mohammad Farooq, said the explosion blew out the windows of a nearby private school, wounding several students.

Kabul’s chief police spokesman, Firdous Faramaz, confirmed the explosion but did not provide details on the target or the type of explosive device. Health Ministry official Wahid Mayer said at least 65 were wounded. He said it is difficult to reach the area because of the ongoing gun battle between police and militants.

The capital has been relatively quiet in recent months following a spate of bombings, many claimed by the local Islamic State affiliate. The Taliban, who have also carried out attacks in Kabul, said they had no claim of responsibility for Monday’s blast. In recent months most Taliban attacks have targeted Afghan and U.S. military installations or convoys.

The explosion came as the latest round of talks between the United States and the Taliban moves into the third day in the Middle Eastern state of Qatar, where the militant group maintains a political office.

The Taliban said their focus during the talks is on getting an announcement of a timetable for the withdrawal of U.S. and NATO troops from Afghanistan. The announcement is likely to be accompanied by a Taliban promise to hold intra-Afghan talks and agree to an eventual cease-fire.

Suhail Shaheen, spokesman for the Taliban’s political office in Doha, told The Associated Press on Monday that “our main concern is to make sure a timeline for troop pullout is announced.”

Taliban officials have previously told the AP they want all foreign troops withdrawn within six months, while Washington has pushed for a longer timeline of a year to 18 months.

The Taliban have refused to hold talks with the Afghan government, calling it a U.S. puppet. They say Washington is the final arbiter on the troop withdrawal, which the insurgents see as the central issue.

Washington accelerated attempts to find a negotiated end to America’s longest war with the appointment last September of Afghan-born American Zalmay Khalilzad, who was a special presidential representative to Afghanistan and later U.S. ambassador in Kabul in the years immediately following the ouster of the Taliban.

During a visit last week to the Afghan capital, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said Washington would like to see an agreement before Sept. 1, considered an ambitious deadline by analysts but likely linked to Afghan presidential polls scheduled for later that month. Washington has expressed concern the elections could hamper a peace deal and has quietly advocated for an interim administration for up to two years following an agreement.

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