A bomb rigged to a rickshaw killed at least 15 children and wounded 20 others in a Taliban-controlled area in eastern Afghanistan on Friday, a provincial official said, as violence in the war-weary country continued to surge.
The bomb went off after a man driving a motorised rickshaw entered a village in the Gilan district to sell goods and was soon surrounded by children, according to Wahidullah Jumazada, spokesman for the Ghazni provincial governor. He said the casualty toll could rise further.
No one immediately claimed responsibility for the attack and Jumazada said an investigation was underway into why children were targeted.
However, Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid sent a message to the media claiming that the explosion was caused by the remains of unexploded ordnance in the area, which the children had allegedly picked up and brought to the merchant.
Mujahid gave a lower death toll, saying 12 children were killed.
The conflicting reports could not be reconciled as the area is under Taliban control and off limits to reporters.
Violence in Afghanistan has spiked in recent months even as the Taliban and Afghan government negotiators hold talks in Qatar, trying to hammer out a peace deal that could put an end to decades of war.
Earlier this week, US Gen. Mark Milley, the chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, held an unannounced meeting with Taliban leaders in Doha, Qatar, to discuss military aspects of last February’s U.S.-Taliban agreement.
The agreement, signed in Qatar where the Taliban maintain a political office, was intended to set the stage for direct peace talks between the Taliban and the Afghan government.
It also provided for the withdrawal of US and NATO troops from Afghanistan. President Donald Trump has ordered the reduction of US forces in Afghanistan from 4,500 to 2,500 by January 15, just days before President-elect Joe Biden is to be sworn in as Trump’s successor. The troop levels are now at about 4,000 and are expected to reach the 2,500 target on time.
After talks with the Taliban, Milley flew to Kabul to consult with Afghan President Ashraf Ghani. He said he emphasised to both parties the need to rapidly reduce levels of violence across the country.