KABUL, Afghanistan -- A bomb exploded Saturday at a girls school in a majority-Shiite district of west Kabul, killing at least 50 people, many of them pupils between 11 and 15, the Interior Ministry said today. The Taliban condemned the attack and denied any responsibility.
Ambulances evacuated the wounded as relatives and residents screamed at authorities near the scene of the blast at Syed Al-Shahda school, in the Dasht-e-Barchi neighborhood, Interior Ministry spokesman Tariq Arian said.
The bombing, apparently aimed to cause maximum civilian carnage, adds to fears that violence in the war-wrecked country could escalate as the U.S. and NATO end nearly 20 years of military engagement.
Residents in the area said the explosion was deafening. One, Naser Rahimi, said he heard three explosions Rahimi also said he believed that the sheer power of the bombing meant the death toll would almost certainly climb.
Rahimi said the explosion went off as the girls were streaming out of the school about 4:30 p.m. Arian later confirmed that three explosions outside the school entrance struck as students were leaving for the day.
One of the students fleeing the school recalled the screaming of the girls, and the blood.
"I was with my classmate, we were leaving the school, when suddenly an explosion happened, " said 15-year-old Zahra, whose arm was broken by shrapnel.
"Ten minutes later there was another explosion and just a couple of minutes later another explosion," she said. "Everyone was yelling and there was blood everywhere, and I couldn't see anything clearly." Her friend died.
While no one has claimed responsibility for the bombing, the Afghan Islamic State affiliate has targeted the Shiite neighborhood before.
The radical Sunni Muslim group has declared war on Afghanistan's minority-Shiite Muslims. Washington blamed the Islamic State group for a vicious attack last year at a maternity hospital in the same area that killed pregnant women and newborns.
In Dasht-e-Barchi, angry crowds attacked the ambulances and even beat health workers as they tried to evacuate the wounded, Health Ministry spokesman Ghulam Dastigar Nazari said. He implored residents to cooperate and allow ambulances free access to the site.
Images circulating on social media purportedly showed bloodied school backpacks and books strewn across the street in front of the school, with smoke rising above the neighborhood.
At a hospital, journalists saw at least 20 bodies lined up in hallways and rooms, with dozens of wounded people and families of victims pressing through the facility.
Outside Muhammad Ali Jinnah Hospital, dozens of people lined up to donate blood, while family members checked casualty lists posted on the walls.
More than 100 people were wounded, Arian said. The attack occurred just as the fasting day ended.
Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid told reporters in a message that only the Islamic State group could be responsible for such a heinous crime. Mujahid also accused Afghanistan's intelligence agency of being complicit with the Islamic State, although he offered no evidence.
The Taliban and the Afghan government have traded accusations over a series of targeted killings of civil-society workers, journalists and Afghan professionals. While the Islamic State group has taken responsibility for some of those killings, many have gone unclaimed.
Afghan President Ashraf Ghani issued a statement condemning the attack, blaming the Taliban even as the militants denied it. He offered no proof.
The Islamic State has previously claimed attacks against minority Shiites in the same area, last year claiming two attacks on education facilities that killed 50 people, most of them students.
The school attack took place days after the remaining 2,500 to 3,500 American troops officially began leaving the country. The pullout is happening as the Taliban are resurging and control or hold sway over half the country.
The top U.S. military officer said today that Afghan government forces face an uncertain future and some "bad possible outcomes" against Taliban insurgents as the withdrawal accelerates in the coming weeks.
Information for this article was contributed by Rahmat Gul, Ahmad Seir and Kathy Gannon of The Associated Press.