Wearing an army uniform, the suicide bomber easily blended in with soldiers as they waited outside a movie theater early Saturday for an army bus to take them to work.

When the bus arrived, officials began checking the soldiers’ IDs and the bomber rushed forward, detonating explosives that ripped off the roof of the bus and tore out its sides, killing 30 people and leaving a charred hull of burnt metal in the street.

“For 10 or 15 seconds, it was like an atom bomb — fire, smoke and dust everywhere,” said Mohammad Azim, a police officer who witnessed the explosion.

The explosion — the second deadliest since the fall of the Taliban in 2001 — came hours before President Hamid Karzai offered to meet with Taliban leader Mullah Omar and give militants a position in his government in a dramatic peace overture.

Strengthening a call for negotiations he has made with increasing frequency in recent weeks, Karzai said he was willing to meet with the reclusive leader Omar and Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, a former prime minister and factional warlord leader.

“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 said. “Esteemed Mullah, sir, and esteemed Hekmatyar, sir, why are you destroying the country?”

Saturday’s explosion was reminiscent of the deadliest attack in Afghanistan since the U.S.-led invasion, when a bomber boarded a police academy bus at Kabul’s busiest transportation hub in June, killing 35 people.

Businesses near the crumpled bus were damaged and shattered glass lay on the street. Civilians and police scoured the scene in search of bodies — and body parts.

“What’s going on in this country? It is like this everyday,” said 45-year-old Habiba Nazhand, a school principal. “How long can we live in these conditions? It’s intolerable.”

Karzai called the bombing a “terrible tragedy, no doubt an act of extreme cowardice.”

“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, he said.

Karzai said 30 people were killed — 28 soldiers and two civilians. The Health Ministry said another 30 were wounded. Two women were among the dead, and 11 people whose bodies were ripped apart so badly had yet to be identified.

A purported Taliban spokesman, Zabiullah Mujahid, claimed the militant group was responsible for the blast in a text message to The Associated Press. Mujahid said the bomber was a Kabul resident named Azizullah.

More than 4,500 people have been killed in insurgency-related violence this year, according to an Associated Press tally of figures from Western and Afghan officials.

The Taliban typically target international and Afghan security forces, although civilians are often killed or wounded as well. The Taliban have launched more than 100 suicide attacks this year.

Karzai earlier this month renewed a call for talks with the Taliban, and a spokesman for the militant group initially said the fighters might be open to negotiations. But spokesman Qari Yousef Ahmadi later said foreign troops must first leave the country — a demand Karzai said Saturday he would not meet.

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. Omar’s whereabouts are not known, although Karzai has claimed he is in Quetta, Pakistan, a militant hotbed across the border from Afghanistan’s Kandahar province.

“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,” Karzai said.

“I wish there would be a demand as easy as this. I wish that they would want a position in the government. I will give them a position,” he said.

The U.S. Embassy in Kabul has said it does not support negotiations with Taliban fighters, labeling them as terrorists, although the U.N. and NATO have said an increasing number of Taliban are interested in laying down their arms. NATO’s ambassador to Afghanistan, Daan Everts, said this month that the alliance would look into the possibility of talks.

Karzai said he wanted negotiations with Taliban militants of Afghan origin “for peace and security.” He ruled out talks with al-Qaida and other foreign fighters.

NATO’s International Security Assistance Force, meanwhile, said one of its soldiers was killed in eastern Afghanistan during combat operations on Saturday. ISAF did not release the soldier’s nationality, but most in the east are American.

Four employees with the International Committee of the Red Cross, kidnapped earlier this week while negotiating the release of a German hostage, were also freed Saturday, the ICRC said.

The four men — two Afghans, a Macedonian and a man from Myanmar — said they were treated well. A Taliban commander said he ordered the four held hostage because he thought they were spies but let them go once it was proven they were Red Cross workers, according to a video obtained by AP Television News.

The four had traveled to Wardak province in hopes of helping free a German man held since July. The workers said that the German was still alive and that they had seen him.

The number of kidnappings in Afghanistan has spiked in recent months after the Taliban secured the release of five insurgent prisoners in exchange for a captive Italian journalist in March — a heavily criticized swap that many feared would encourage abductions.

The Taliban kidnapped 23 South Koreans in July, a hostage crisis that scored the militants face-to-face talks with South Korean government delegates. Two of the Koreans were killed; 21 were eventually released.


Associated Press reporters Jason Straziuso, Rahim Faiez and Amir Shah contributed to this report.

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