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Taliban Claims Responsibility For Explosion In Afghan Capital Kabul

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

We're getting news this morning of a major attack in the center of the city of Kabul. At this hour, at least 28 are dead and more than 300 injured. The attack fulfilled the Taliban's promise that a spring offensive was about to begin in Afghanistan. And the Taliban did claim responsibility for this suicide bombing. NPR's Philip Reeves has more.

PHILIP REEVES, BYLINE: Well, this was a very big blast. It echoed right across Kabul. It rattled windows, it shattered windows and it sent a plume of gray, black smoke, like a big mushroom, hundreds of feet up into the air in the skies above the city. It happened at rush hour, so that might explain the high number of casualties.

The target was the Afghan national security agency. The Taliban say they were trying to hit a unit of that agency, an elite unit that provides special security for Afghan government VIPs.

MONTAGNE: How was it possible for attackers to get even close enough to do a lot of damage to a building that one would think was as secure as it gets in Kabul?

REEVES: Well, you know, this is a city in which many buildings have been converted into forts. It's a city of roadblocks, of security cameras, of men in uniform with Kalashnikovs on every corner, of diplomats who, for months, have been on total lockdown in Kabul. And yet, the Taliban is operational in the heart of this city.

In this case, they brought a car bomb, or a vehicle bomb, into the area, detonated that. And it appears that Taliban militants then came in after that and a long gun battle ensued.

MONTAGNE: So what does this say about the broader security picture in Afghanistan generally?

REEVES: Well, Renee, if you talk to Afghans who follow this conflict day by day, they'll tell you that the Taliban is more powerful now than at any time since the U.S.-led invasion of Afghanistan in 2002 and toppled the Taliban government. You know, and we're seeing the effect of the escalating conflict in numbers.

The U.N. released figures the other day that said that if you count the injured, civilian casualties here are up again in the first quarter of this year. Matters are not helped by the fragility of the Afghan government and its waning popularity, all by a mass exodus of young Afghans to Europe by high unemployment, by the absence of any credible progress towards a peace process and, of course, the need this year, Renee, for Afghanistan to generate still more funding from an international community that is heartily sick of this conflict.

MONTAGNE: And this would also seem to bode not well for security in the coming spring and summer, which is the normal fighting season.

REEVES: Yes, the U.N.'s envoy the other day warned that this is going to be a very difficult fighting season. And it seems that this is already proving to be the case only a week after the Taliban announced the start of their spring offensive.

Afghanistan's security agency says there've also been attempts which they've intercepted to carry out attacks here in Kabul, one against the airport and one against a hotel here.

These were in recent days.

MONTAGNE: NPR's Philip Reeves speaking to us from Kabul. Thanks very much.

REEVES: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.