KABUL -- Insiders were among the attackers who stormed Afghanistan's largest military hospital last week, killing more than 100 people, multiple surviving staff and security sources told AFP.
The six-hour attack on the Sardar Daud Khan Hospital Wednesday (March 8) began when a suicide bomber blew himself up at the back entrance, enabling gunmen disguised as doctors to enter the facility, according to the official account of the assault.
But multiple survivors spoke of a "simultaneous massacre", revealing that attackers already positioned inside the facility -- some of them familiar staff --launched a killing spree immediately after the blast.
They included two interns in their 20s who had worked in the facility for months, according to a hospital official who guided Afghan special forces to rescue the victims.
"We all knew them," he told AFP, requesting anonymity as he lacked authorisation to talk to the media.
"One of them blew himself up, and the other was shot down by special forces."
A badly wounded doctor said one of the interns had worked under him. "He was my student, a familiar face... It was painful to see him shooting at everyone," he told AFP.
The involvement of the two interns was corroborated by an Afghan security source.
The carnage inside the heavily guarded hospital spotlights how insurgents have infiltrated top government and military institutions in Afghanistan.
Defence Ministry spokesman Mohammad Radmanesh conceded that "the attack was carried out from both outside and inside".
"This could not have been possible without the help of people inside," he told AFP. "Some individuals are being questioned."
A savage assault
The Defence Ministry insists only more than 30 people were killed by five attackers. But Western sources, the Afghan security source and the survivors, some of whom counted dead bodies, said there were far more attackers and the death toll exceeded 100.
The assailants stabbed bed-ridden patients, threw grenades into crowded wards and shot people from point-blank range.
"They weren't spraying bullets; they were shooting victims in the head," one hospital staffer told AFP, adding that the victims included a mother and a child in her arms.
"Some of them were in phone contact with handlers whom they addressed as Mullah Sahib. 'We are killing all the non-believers,' they said."
ISIL or Taliban attack?
Hours after the Taliban denied responsibility, the "Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant" (ISIL) claimed it was behind the attack.
But the survivors who spoke to AFP said the attackers chanted "Allahu Akbar" (God is great) and "Long live the Taliban" in Pashtu.
Officials have expressed doubt about the culpability of ISIL, a group seeking to expand its foothold in Afghanistan but which faces heavy pressure from Afghan and coalition forces.
"We have leads and clues that contradict ISIL's claim," a senior Afghan security official told AFP earlier this week.
"The group lacks the capacity to carry out such complex attacks. There are indications that the [Taliban-allied] Haqqani Network was behind it."
Perhaps most tellingly, the gunmen, who knew the building's layout well and raided almost every floor, spared two wards on the first floor where Taliban patients were admitted, the survivors said.
A particular target, they said, was the VIP wing, where the attackers sought out an army general and the relative of a former minister by name. It was unclear whether they survived the attack.
"The attack had the hallmarks of the more dominant Taliban, which have repeatedly carried out such spectacular co-ordinated attacks on government targets," Atiqullah Amarkhil, a Kabul-based security analyst, told AFP.
"This shows that when the Taliban or Haqqanis are not willing to take responsibility for an attack, the opportunistic ISIL will come forward to contradict American and [Afghan] government claims that they have been badly weakened."
But Rahimullah Yusufzai, a Pakistani analyst of militant movements, cautioned against dismissing ISIL entirely.
"It's important to remember that despite its losses, ISIL still has determined fighters," he said. "We cannot rule it out as a threat."