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Save the Children suspends operations in Afghanistan as Islamic State attack continues

A suicide bomber detonated a car bomb outside the Save the Children offices
A suicide bomber detonated a car bomb outside the Save the Children offices

Save the Children suspended its operations across Afghanistan on Wednesday as Islamic State militants continued to terrorise staff trapped inside an office in the country’s east, in the latest attack on a foreign charity.

More than seven hours after gunmen blasted their way into the British charity’s compound in Jalalabad city, killing at least two people and wounding 14 others, the attack was ongoing — despite an official declaration that the assault was over.

“Save the Children can confirm that the security incident affecting our office in Jalalabad, Afghanistan is still ongoing,” a spokesperson for the aid group said in a statement.

“In response to this all of our programmes across Afghanistan have been temporarily suspended and our offices are closed.”

After blowing up a car outside the British charity’s compound in Jalalabad city, the attackers used a rocket-propelled grenade to storm the complex, in a raid claimed by IS via its propaganda arm Amaq.

A spokesman for Nangarhar province’s governor said earlier that security forces had swarmed the compound and brought the assault to an end, but an AFP reporter at the scene could still hear gunfire. A security source also told AFP the attack was still ongoing.

Earlier, spokesman Attaullah Khogyani said at least two people had been killed and 14 wounded, and that the attackers were wearing military uniforms.

Witnessed said they could see security forces standing on the street trying to enter the compound.

Mohammad Amin, who was inside the compound when the attackers launched the raid, said from his hospital bed that he heard “a big blast”.

“We ran for cover and I saw a gunman hitting the main gate with an RPG (rocket-propelled grenade) to enter the compound. I jumped out of the window,” Amin said.

Afghan TV news channels showed a thick plume of black smoke rising above the compound and what appeared to be at least one vehicle on fire outside the office.

IS has ramped up attacks in urban areas in recent months, targeting mosques and Afghan security forces as the group’s franchise in Afghanistan expands beyond its stronghold in the east.

Militant groups rarely claim responsibility for attacks on aid workers.

– Charities targeted –

Wednesday’s assault comes days after Taliban gunmen stormed a luxury hotel in the Afghan capital, killing at least 22 people, mostly foreigners.

Insurgents armed with Kalashnikovs and suicide vests attacked the landmark Intercontinental Hotel, going from room to room searching for foreigners during the more than 12-hour ordeal.

“We are devastated at the news that our Save the Children office in Jalalabad city, Afghanistan came under attack this morning,” Save the Children said in an earlier statement.

The UN’s mission in Afghanistan tweeted that it was looking into reports of the attack.

“Attacks directed at civilians or aid organisations are clear violations of international humanitarian law and may amount to war crimes,” it said.

The assault on Save the Children, which has operated in Afghanistan since 1976, is the latest violence to strike a foreign aid group in the country, which recorded the second highest number of attacks against aid workers in 2016.

Only South Sudan was more dangerous, according to UK-based research group Humanitarian Outcomes.

The International Committee of the Red Cross announced in October it would “drastically” reduce its presence in the country after seven employees were killed in attacks last year.

The decision by the charity, which has been working in Afghanistan for over three decades, underlined the growing dangers for aid workers, who have increasingly become casualties of a surge in militant violence in recent years.

Nangarhar, a restive province bordering Pakistan, is a stronghold for IS and also has a significant Taliban presence.

US and Afghan forces have been carrying out ground and air operations against IS fighters in Nangarhar.

While Afghan security forces are conducting most of the fighting against IS and Taliban militants, US troops operate alongside them in a training capacity and are frequently on the front lines.

The last major attack in Jalalabad was on December 31 when an explosion at a funeral killed 18 mourners and wounded another 13. There was no claim of responsibility.