At least 100 worshipers have been killed or injured in a suicide bombing that targeted a Shiite mosque in Afghanistan during Friday prayers.
Responsibility for the explosion, which took place in Kunduz, the capital of the province of the same name in the northeastern part of the country, was taken over by Islamic State’s local subsidiary, Islamic State Khorasan Province (ISKP), which has a long history of attack Afghanistan’s Shia minority, who make up about 15-20% of the population.
Graphic but unconfirmed images posted on social media showed horrific scenes inside the Gozar-e-Sayed Abad mosque, with bloody bodies and body parts hurled across the inside of the building by the explosion. Other photos showed a smoke rising from the mosque.
The attack was the deadliest in the country since a suicide bombing – also claimed by the ISKP – at Kabul airport during the US-led withdrawal, which killed 13 US soldiers and 169 Afghans. Photos and video from the scene in Kunduz showed rescuers carrying a corpse wrapped in a blanket from the mosque to an ambulance.
“The first information indicates that more than 100 people have been killed and injured in a suicide bombing inside the mosque,” the UN mission to Afghanistan said in a tweet. Some reports suggested that the death toll was as high as 50.
The Taliban’s top spokesman, Zabihullah Mujahid, said a “large number” of worshipers had been killed or wounded, and Taliban special forces had arrived on the scene and were investigating.
Dost Mohammad Obaida, Taliban’s deputy police chief for Kunduz province, said Friday’s attack was possibly carried out by a suicide bomber who had mingled with worshipers inside the mosque.
“I assure our Shia brothers that the Taliban are ready to ensure their safety,” Obaida said.
The atrocities have underscored both the fragility of the security situation under the Taliban’s new regime and the ISKP’s willingness to destabilize the harsh Islamist organization on its own soil, while moving from a rebel movement to consolidating its rule.
While the Taliban have persecuted the ISKP, killed and arrested its members, they have also tried to minimize the threat from the group.
Bitter rivals from the Taliban, ISKP, have repeatedly targeted Shia Muslims in an attempt to incite sectarian violence in Afghanistan by Sunni majority.
Even before the US-led withdrawal, Islamic State saw the Taliban as a regional and ideological rival, with some observers warning that the ISKP would launch a campaign of increasing violence with the aim of destabilizing the new regime.
One of the toughest points of contention is about the Taliban’s ambitions to carve out an emirate within Afghanistan’s national borders, a goal sharply at odds with the Islamic State’s vision of a transnational caliphate.
Eyewitness accounts from near the explosion described scenes of panic as people searched for relatives and ambulances transported the dead and wounded to several nearby hospitals.
A medical source at Kunduz Provincial Hospital said 35 dead and more than 55 injured had been taken there, while a trauma center at Médecins Sans Frontières said 20 were dead and many more injured.
A female teacher in Kunduz described how the explosion happened near her house and several of her neighbors were killed.
“It was a very scary incident,” she told Agence France-Presse. “Many of our neighbors have been killed and injured. A 16-year-old neighbor was killed. They could not find half of his body. Another 24-year-old neighbor was also killed.”
Another video showed men shepherding people, including women and children, away from the site. Frightened crowds crowded the streets.
Aminullah, an eyewitness whose brother was in the mosque, added: “After I heard the explosion, I called my brother, but he did not answer.
“I walked towards the mosque and found my brother wounded and fainted. We immediately took him to MSF Hospital. ”
Another local resident, Hussaindad Rezayee, said he hurried to the mosque as soon as the explosion broke out. “I was busy at home with construction work, and when the beans started, the explosion happened,” he said. “I came to look for my relatives, the mosque was full.”
The Kunduz bombing follows other recent attacks attributed to ISKP.
On Sunday, the group targeted a funeral prayer attended by a number of senior Taliban leaders in Kabul, and there have been other minor attacks in the eastern provinces of Nangarhar and Kunar.
It marks a worrying escalation for Afghanistan’s Shia minority, which has long been a target of sectarian violence, including by the Taliban.
Ethnic Hazaras, who are mostly Shia Muslims, make up about 6% of Kunduz province’s population of almost 1 million people. The province also has a large ethnic Uzbek population, which has been the target of IS recruitment, which is closely aligned with the militant Islamic movement in Uzbekistan.