JALALABAD (Agencies) – Save the Children suspended operations across Afghanistan yesterday as Islamic State militants terrorised staff trapped inside one of its offices in an hours-long attack, the latest assault on a foreign charity.
Gunmen blasted their way into the British aid group’s compound in the eastern city of Jalalabad, killing at least three people and wounding 24.
Save the Children, a reporter at the scene and a security source said the attack was continuing in the early evening, hours after an official claimed it was over.
“Save the Children can confirm that the security incident affecting our office in Jalalabad, Afghanistan is still ongoing,” a spokesperson 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 charity’s compound in Jalalabad, the attackers used a rocket-propelled grenade (RPG) to storm the complex, in a raid claimed by the IS via its propaganda arm Amaq.
The its the statement IS said the attack targeted British, Swedish and Afghan government institutions. Save the Children was founded in Britain and a Swedish aid group office and a building of the Afghan Department of Women’s Affairs are near the compound.
Attaullah Khogyani, a spokesman for the Nangarhar provincial governor, said at least three people – two guards and a civilian – had been killed and 24 wounded. Earlier, he said the attackers were wearing military uniforms.
Up to 50 people including women were rescued from a basement where they had been hiding from attackers, Mr Khogyani said in a statement.
Plumes of black smoke rose from the area as the surviving gunmen battled special forces.
A police officer said at least one attacker had blown himself up in the initial suicide assault and another had been killed.
Schoolchildren and residents fled as Afghan special forces arrived to engage the militants.
“An explosion rocked the area and right after that children and people started running away,” said Ghulam Nabi, who was nearby when the bomb exploded. “I saw a vehicle catch fire and then a gunfight started.”
Mohammad Amin, who was inside the compound when the attackers launched the raid at 9.10am, 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 to enter the compound. I jumped out of the window,” Mr Amin said.
Afghan TV news channels showed black smoke rising above the compound and what appeared to be at least one vehicle on fire outside the office.
“Attacks directed at civilians or aid organisations are clear violations of international humanitarian law and may amount to
war crimes,” the UN’s mission in Afghanistan tweeted earlier.
In October, the Red Cross said it was drastically reducing operations in Afghanistan following attacks that killed seven of its staff.
“An attack against an organisation that helps children is outrageous. Civilians and aid workers must not be targeted,” said Monica Zanarelli, head of the Red Cross delegation in Afghanistan, in response to yesterday’s attack.
“Increased violence has made operating in Afghanistan increasingly difficult for many organisations.”
The IS has intensified attacks in cities in recent months, targeting mosques and Afghan security forces as it expands beyond its stronghold in the east. Militant groups rarely claim responsibility for attacks on aid workers.
Yesterday’s assault comes days after Taliban gunmen stormed a luxury hotel in the Afghan capital and killed at least 22 people, mostly foreigners.
The assault on Save the Children, which has operated in Afghanistan since 1976, is the latest violence to hit 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.
Nangarhar, a restive province bordering Pakistan, is a stronghold for the IS and also has a significant Taliban presence.
US and Afghan forces havebeen carrying out ground and air operations against IS fighters in the province.
While Afghan security forces are conducting most of the fighting against the 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 13. There was no claim of responsibility.