KABUL, Afghanistan – President Hamid Karzai, expressing horror at a suicide bombing here in the Afghan capital that killed at least 30 people and wounded dozens more, offered Saturday to meet with Taliban leader Mullah Mohammed Omar to stop the carnage.
Karzai spoke at an emotional news conference hours after an early morning blast tore through a bus carrying soldiers to their posts. The explosion ripped the roof and sides from the bus, scattering body parts and debris along a street in the city center.
Nearly all the dead were thought to be soldiers, but at least two were civilians near the bus when it blew up.
A purported Taliban spokesman calling himself Zabibullah Mujahed claimed responsibility for the attack in text messages to Western news agencies.
Several times in recent weeks, Karzai has suggested direct talks with the Taliban, the austere Islamic militia driven from power by a U.S. invasion nearly six years ago.
But Saturday’s appeal, aimed directly at the fugitive Mullah Omar and warlord Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, carried more urgency than the U.S.-backed president’s previous overtures.
“If I find their address, there is no need for them to come to me – I’ll personally go there and get in touch with them,” Karzai told reporters at his presidential palace.
Apparently paraphrasing the question he would put to them, he asked: ” ‘Esteemed mullah, sir, and esteemed Hekmatyar, sir, why are you destroying the country?’ “
U.S. diplomats and military officials in Afghanistan would not comment on Karzai’s appeal, although one American official, speaking on condition of anonymity, cautioned against taking the offer to talk to the insurgents himself too literally.
Taliban fighters have responded to the president’s previous overtures by demanding that all foreign forces leave Afghanistan before any talks could take place. NATO, in turn, has said it would consider negotiations only with fighters who were willing to lay down their arms.
In intensified fighting in the last 18 months, the insurgents have made little headway against a vastly superior U.S.- and NATO-led force but have extracted a heavy toll in civilian lives and rendered large swaths of the country unsafe.
The bus bombing was the worst in the capital since a similar blast in June, also targeting a bus carrying security personnel, killed about 35 people.
As in Iraq, Afghans have become accustomed to attacks carried out during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, but Karzai said the timing rendered the attack particularly heinous.
“It was a terrible tragedy, no doubt an act of extreme cowardice,” Karzai told reporters. “Whoever did this was against people, against humanity, definitely against Islam. A man who calls himself Muslim will not blow up innocent people in the middle of Ramadan.”
Meanwhile, the International Committee of the Red Cross said four of its employees kidnapped last week had been freed unharmed.
Franz Rauchenstein, deputy head of the organization’s delegation in Kabul, called the release of the two foreigners and two Afghan nationals “a great relief” and said no ransom had been paid for them or any other concessions made.