KABUL, Afghanistan -- A suicide bomber detonated an explosives-packed car outside a gate at the Afghan Supreme Court during the afternoon rush hour Tuesday, killing 17 people and wounding 38, all of them civilians, Afghan officials said.
It was the second consecutive day that insurgents staged a significant suicide attack in the capital, and it raised again the question of whether the Afghan government can ensure security from Taliban attackers. On Monday, Taliban attackers laid siege to the military side of the Kabul airport in a failed attack that killed only the seven attackers and caused little damage.
Tuesday's attacker, who was in a Toyota Corolla or similar car, detonated the explosives behind the Supreme Court building near a gate to a parking lot as workers were ending their workday, said Najibullah Danish, deputy spokesman for the Interior Ministry, which oversees the national police. Some casualties were court workers, others were just passing on the street.
The blast came just hours after the top United Nations official in Afghanistan said U.N. officials and Taliban leaders were working out details of a meeting to talk about reducing civilian casualties. The toll on civilians, a long-standing U.N. concern, is mostly caused by the insurgents.
Jan Kubis, head of the U.N. Mission in Afghanistan, revealed the negotiations during a news conference in which he said civilian casualties in Afghanistan had jumped 24 percent in the first five months of the year, compared with the same period in 2012. Mr. Kubis earlier had issued open and back-channel invitations to the Taliban to meet. He said the insurgents had responded, and that talks had begun "quite recently" about how to make such a meeting work.
A particularly disturbing trend has emerged in recent weeks, Mr. Kubis said: attacks on humanitarian groups. Last month, insurgents attacked an International Committee of the Red Cross office in Jalalabad, killing a guard and wounding one employee. That was just days after another group of fighters hit a Kabul guest house used by an international refugee agency, injuring several workers and killing a guard and an off-duty police officer
The horrific nature of the killings of civilians was underlined not only by the Supreme Court attack, but also by the discovery in Kandahar province of the beheaded bodies of two impoverished boys, ages 16 and 11.
"According to tribal elders and residents, the families of these boys were threatened by the Taliban not to use the food they were getting from a police checkpoint nearby, as they were very poor and couldn't afford food from the local market," said provincial government spokesman Javid Faisal. "But despite that, they continued receiving food from the police."
A Taliban spokesman denied the group's involvement, but Mr. Faisal said there were no other insurgent organizations operating in that area, and that the Taliban routinely dodge responsibility for killing civilians. "It's a part of their media propaganda," he said. "As a human being and the provincial spokesman for Kandahar, I strongly condemn this inhuman and barbaric act and call it against all principals of Islam."