KABUL -- Explosions and gunfire rattled Kabul's diplomatic district Wednesday (March 8) when insurgents dressed as doctors stormed Afghanistan's largest military hospital, officials said.
At least 38 Afghans were killed and more than 70 wounded at Sardar Daud Khan Hospital, health officials reported.
"Most of the victims are patients, doctors and nurses," Ministry of Defence spokesman Dawlat Waziri told AFP, adding that four attackers were killed.
Afghan special forces launched a clearance operation that lasted about six hours, landing on the roof of the hospital and ultimately gunning down the attackers.
"We are still assessing the damage," Ministry of Interior spokesman Sediq Sediqqi told AFP in a brief statement.
The "Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant" (ISIL) claimed responsibility.
"Attackers are inside the hospital. Pray for us," a hospital staff member wrote on Facebook during the roughly six-hour-long siege.
Three gunmen wearing white laboratory coats rampaged after a suicide bomber on foot detonated himself at the rear entrance, sparking chaos inside the 400-bed facility, hospital administrators told AFP.
"I saw one of the attackers, armed with an AK-47 and dressed as a doctor, shooting at patients and guards on the third floor," hospital nurse Abdul Qadeer told AFP.
"They shot my friend, but I managed to flee... I had to jump over the barbed wire to escape," he said.
At least two other loud explosions -- including what the Defence Ministry called a car bomb in the hospital's parking lot -- were heard as Afghan troops launched a clearance operation.
'Nothing can justify an attack on hospitals'
Officials and ordinary citizens reacted with outrage to the latest instance of Afghanistan's warring parties targeting a medical facility. The repeated attacks have decimated Afghanistan's fragile health system and prevented conflict-displaced civilians from accessing life-saving care.
"This is a criminal act. Nothing can justify an attack on hospitals," Afghan Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah said of the latest attack, according to AFP.
"We will never forgive these criminals," he said.
"We will punish those responsible for it including their organisers & sponsors," tweeted National Security Adviser Muhammad Hanif Atmar.
Gen. Bashir Salangi, former deputy interior minister, called the targeting of patients and of hospitals "inhuman, barbaric and un-Islamic".
"I've seen doctors helping injured insurgents in the hospital," Kabul athlete Mastora Arezo told Salaam Times. "Now they've attacked the doctors. They are not human beings and aren't committed to Islam."
Attacks on mosques, schools and hospitals show that insurgents lack the ability to fight the army, Dr. Zohair Zohair of Kabul told Salaam Times.
"This attack clearly showed who they are," he said of the insurgents. "They don't want people to live in peace."
The assault comes just a week after 16 people were killed in simultaneous Taliban suicide assaults on two security compounds in Kabul.
Dozens of others were wounded as a suicide car bomber struck an Afghan police precinct in western Kabul and a five-hour gun battle ensued after another attacker snuck in, sending clouds of smoke billowing into the sky.
In the second attack, a suicide bomber blew himself up at the gates of an Afghan intelligence agency branch in eastern Kabul.
The growing violence underscores rising insecurity in Afghanistan caused by the resurgent Taliban.
On February 7, a suicide bomber targeted Afghan Supreme Court employees, killing at least 20 and wounding 41, all civilians.
On January 6, militants attacked coal miners in Baghlan Province, killing five and injuring eight. In December, Taliban fighters massacred 23 civilians in a retaliatory attack in Kandahar Province after police killed 29 militants.
The country is bracing for an intense fighting season in the spring as the government's repeated bids to launch peace negotiations with the Taliban have failed.
[Izazullah from Kabul contributed to this report.]