KABUL, Afghanistan — A Taliban suicide bomber wearing an Afghan army uniform set off a huge explosion yesterday while trying to board a military bus in the capital and killed 30 persons, most of them soldiers, officials said.
Hours later, Afghan President Hamid Karzai offered to meet personally with the Taliban leader for peace talks and give the militants a position in government.
The explosion ripped off the roof of the bus and tore out its sides, leaving a charred hull of burned metal. It was reminiscent of the deadliest insurgent attack in Afghanistan since the U.S.-led invasion in 2001 — when a bomber boarded a police academy bus at Kabul’s busiest transportation hub in June and killed 35 persons.
Dozens of civilians and police officers searched for bodies after the explosion yesterday. Police and soldiers climbed trees to retrieve some body parts. Nearby businesses also were damaged.
“For 10 or 15 seconds, it was like an atom bomb — fire, smoke and dust everywhere,” said Mohammed Azim, a police officer who witnessed the explosion.
The bus had stopped in front of a movie theater to pick up soldiers when a bomber wearing a military uniform tried to board at about 6:45 a.m. local time, army spokesman Gen. Mohammed Zahir Azimi said.
Mr. Karzai said 30 persons were killed — 28 soldiers and two civilians. The Health Ministry said another 30 were wounded.
A purported Taliban spokesman, Zabiullah Mujahid, in a text message to the Associated Press, claimed the militant group was responsible for the blast. He said the bomber was a Kabul resident named Azizullah.
“It was a terrible tragedy, no doubt an act of extreme cowardice,” Mr. Karzai said. “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,” the Muslim holy month.
Mr. Karzai again said he was willing to meet with Taliban leader Mullah Omar and Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, a former prime minister and factional warlord leader. The president repeated a call for negotiations that he has made with increasing frequency in the past several weeks.
“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,” Mr. Karzai said. “Esteemed Mullah, sir, and esteemed Hekmatyar, sir, why are you destroying the country?”
Mr. Karzai said he has contacts with Taliban militants through tribal elders but that there are no direct and open government communication channels with the fighters.
“If a group of Taliban or a number of Taliban come to me and say, ‘President, we want a department in this or in that ministry, or we want a position as deputy minister … and we don’t want to fight anymore. … If there will be a demand and a request like that to me, I will accept it because I want conflicts and fighting to end in Afghanistan,” Mr. Karzai said.
He has said he wants negotiations with Taliban militants of Afghan origin, but he ruled out talks with al Qaeda and other foreign fighters.
NATO and the United Nations have said an increasing number of Taliban fighters are interested in laying down their arms. NATO’s ambassador to Afghanistan, Daan Everts, said this month that NATO would look into the possibility of talks.
Meanwhile, four employees with the International Committee of the Red Cross, kidnapped earlier this week while negotiating the release of a German hostage, were freed in good health yesterday, said a police official in the Sayad Abad district, where the four were taken. He had no news about the German.
“The unconditional release of our four colleagues is a great relief to us and their families,” said Franz Rauchenstein, deputy head of the ICRC delegation in Kabul.