Explosion in diplomatic area of Kabul kills, wounds dozens

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   KABUL, Afghanistan (AP) -- A massive explosion rocked a highly secure diplomatic area of Kabul on Wednesday morning, causing casualties and sending a huge plume of smoke over the Afghan capital. At least 50 people may have been killed or wounded in what officials said was a suicide car bombing.

   No group immediately claimed responsibility for the blast but both the Taliban and the Islamic State group have staged large-scale attacks in the Afghan capital in the past.

   Details on the blast in the in Wazir Akbar Khan district were sketchy and Najib Danish, deputy spokesman for the Interior Ministry, did not have a breakdown of the casualties.

   The explosion occurred at the peak of Kabul's rush hour when roads are packed with worktime commuters. The neighborhood is considered Kabul's safest area, with foreign embassies protected by dozens of 10-foot-high blast walls and government offices, guarded by police and national security forces. The German Embassy, the Foreign Ministry and the Presidential Palace are all in the area.

   Ismail Kawasi, spokesman for the public health ministry, confirmed that so far more than 60 wounded in the explosion were admitted to different Kabul hospitals.

   Danish said the blast was so heavy that more than 30 vehicles were either destroyed or damaged at the site of the attack. "We don't know at this moment what was the target of the attack, but most of the casualties are civilians," said Danish.

   Windows were shattered in shops, restaurants and other buildings up to a kilometer (half mile) from the blast site.

   "There are a large number of casualties, but I don't know, how many people are killed or wounded," said an eyewitness at the site, Gul Rahim.

   Last month, the Afghan Taliban announced the beginning of their spring offensive, promising to build their political base in the country while focusing military assaults on the international coalition and Afghan security forces.

   U.S. and Afghan forces have been battling the Taliban insurgency for more than 15 years. The United States now has more than 8,000 troops in Afghanistan, training local forces and conducting counterterrorism operations. In the past year, they have largely concentrated on thwarting a surge of attacks by the Taliban, who have captured key districts, such as Helmand province, which U.S. and British troops had fought bitterly to return to the government.