Police in Afghanistan said bombings on Tuesday hit a Shiite Muslim shrine and a mosque, killing at least 54 people, and wounding more than 100 during one of the most important days in the Shiite calendar, The New York Times reported.
Bombers struck Shiite religious sites in three cities— two of the attacks were in Kabul, where dozens died, and one was in the northern city of Mazar-i-Sharif, where four were killed. A third attack occured in the southern city of Kandahar, but no one was killed.
This is the first such sectarian violence in a decade in Afghanistan.
The attacks were "the first time that on such an important religious day in Afghanistan terrorism of that horrible nature is taking place," Afghan President Hamid Karzai said at a news conference. Karzai announced he would cancel his UK trip and return home to address the situation.
The deadliest attack was at the Abul Fazl shrine in Kabul, where the bomber blew himself up outside the mosque where men, women an children were gathered.
According to The Times:
Ghulam Sakhi Kargar, the spokesman for the Afghan Public Health Ministry, said 54 people were killed in the Kabul bombing and 164 wounded and admitted to hospitals. Gen. Abdul Zahair, the head of the criminal investigation division of the Kabul Police Department, put the death toll at 56 in Kabul, with similar numbers of wounded. Both officials said that many of the wounded were in very critical condition so the death toll may rise.
The Associated Press describes the aftermath of the attack at the Abul Fazl shrine:
“Bodies of the dead lay on top of one another where they fell. Survivors with blood-smeared faces cried amid the chaos. A few minutes after the blast, bodies could be seen loaded into the trunks of cars while wounded were led away by friends and relatives. Survivors wept in the streets.”
The Ministry of the Interior blamed the Taliban for the violence but the militant group condemned the attacks and said they regret the death and injuries of Afghan civilians.
“We strongly condemn this wild and inhuman act by our enemies, who are trying to blame us and trying to divide Afghans by doing such attacks on Muslims,” wrote Zabiullah Mujahid, a spokesperson of the Taliban in an email to news organizations, The Times reported.
News reports say sectarian attacks have been unprecedented in recent Afghan history and that religiously motivated attacks against Shiites, who make up 10 to 15 percent of the country’s Muslim population, are rare. Attacks have primarily focused on international and Afghan security forces, the reports say.
Sunni-Shiite tensions in Afghanistan do exist, however. More than 4,000 people living in Mazar-i-Sharif were killed from attacks led by the anti-Shiite Afghan Taliban regime in 1998.
According to The Times, all past suicide attacks in Afghanistan have been attributed to Taliban insurgents or allied groups like the Haqqani network and Al Qaeda.
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Authorities said the blast in Kabul, which occured at 11:30 a.m. local time, was caused by a suspected suicide bomber. An unnamed security official told Agence France Presse the bomber had detonated explosives at the gate of the shrine.
Four more people were killed in the northern city of Mazar-i-Sharif, when another blast went off near a mosque at the same time, the BBC reported.
According to CNN:
Ashura commemorates the martyrdom of Hussein, grandson of the Prophet Muhammad. Hussein's death in battle in Karbala, Iraq, in 680, is one of the events that helped create the schism between Sunnis and Shiites, the two main Muslim religious movements. Shiites are a minority presence in Afghanistan, which is predominantly Sunni.
Under the Taliban, who ruled Afghanistan until 2001, the Shiite community was banned from marking Ashura in public, Al Jazeera reported.
The attacks come after at least 28 people were killed in central Iraq, in a series of bomb attacks against Shiite pilgrims making their way to Karbala, AFP reported.
They also come after a one-day conference on Afghanistan's future was held Monday in the German city of Bonn.