KABUL — Within hours of the top UN official in Afghanistan issuing a statement saying the Taliban had “signaled their willingness” to talk about reducing civilian casualties, militants set off a bomb that killed at least 17 civilians and wounded 39 others, many of them critically, outside the capital’s Supreme Court complex Tuesday.
The powerful explosion, felt throughout central Kabul, destroyed three buses taking court workers home from their jobs, according to General Dawood Amin, the deputy Kabul police chief. He said the death toll might rise beyond 17, as the authorities were still searching for bodies. The victims included several children, he said, but no police or military personnel.
The Taliban spokesman, Zabiullah Mujahid, e-mailed a statement to reporters afterward saying that a suicide bomber had carried out the attack, and that the court’s employees had been “sentenced to death” because of their “important role in cruelty, bad behavior with our countrymen, and legalizing the infidels.”
Most of the victims, however, were believed to be low-level employees of the court.
Earlier in the day, Jan Kubis, the UN secretary general’s special representative, said at a news conference that the Taliban had made “rather recent” responses to overtures from the United Nations seeking to discuss civilian casualties.
“I can confirm that we received signals about their willingness and readiness to discuss this issue with us,” he said. “I welcome this.”
Kubis also deplored what he said was a 24 percent increase in civilian casualties this year through June 6, compared with the same period in 2012, and he blamed the insurgents for three-quarters of those, based on data compiled by the United Nations.
That provoked an angry reaction from Mujahid, who said in a telephone call after the news conference that the world body “should not act as a propaganda machine for the invaders in Afghanistan.”
Mujahid said he “would not confirm” that any such talks were under consideration by the Taliban.
However, he maintained that “our mujahedeen have been strictly advised to exercise maximum caution when conducting an operation in an area populated by civilians.”
There was little evidence of such caution Tuesday afternoon, however.
The suicide bomber drove his car into the employee buses when the largest number of court workers would be present, about 20 minutes after work let out at 4 p.m. but before the buses were fully loaded.
Witnesses and police described a scene of devastation, with three buses destroyed and body parts strewn over an area as wide as 200 yards from the blast’s center. People were injured even in nearby apartment buildings, where one man frantically called a relative saying he was too injured to move.
The explosion was also close to the US Embassy, where sirens sounded ordering workers to take shelter and entrances were blocked for several hours.
Most of the victims appeared to be Supreme Court workers, according to Mujib Aziz, the secretary to the chief justice, who was reached by telephone in the court’s bunker. The chief justice himself was in his office during the attack and was unharmed, Aziz said.
The attack came a day after an unsuccessful assault on the Kabul airport, in which no one was killed.
Kubis said earlier Tuesday that the UN had publicly and through private channels asked the Taliban to engage in the talks on civilian casualties.
“Now we are discussing modalities, how hopefully to start this dialogue, sooner rather than later,” he said. “We need to come to an understanding how to do this, as you know it’s not that simple to have a meeting between the two of us.”