KABUL, (Reuters) – A suicide attack killed dozens of Shi’ite Muslims at a crowded Kabul shrine yesterday, and four others died in a smaller blast in a key northern city, in the worst sectarian violence Afghanistan has seen since the fall of the Taliban.
The Kabul bomb was the deadliest in the capital since 2008, and punctured any lingering sense of optimism from a conference on Monday where Western allies made firm but not specific promises to support Afghanistan after troops leave in 2014.
Bodies and blood were scattered down a street in the heart of old Kabul where a crowd of hundreds had gathered to mark the festival of Ashura, with chanting, and self-flagellation. At least 55 were killed and 160 wounded, some critically.
Afghans, who have previously been spared the large-scale sectarian attacks that regularly trouble Iraq and neighbouring Pakistan, now face the grim prospect of a new type of bloodshed being added to the dangers of daily life.
“This is the first time on such an important religious day in Afghanistan that terrorism of that horrible nature is taking place,” Afghan President Hamid Karzai told journalists in Germany, where the conference on Afghanistan’s future was held.
Outside a Kabul hospital, mourners cried near a pile of bloody clothes and shoes. A woman in a dark headscarf clutching a bloodstained sports shoe said her son, in his early 20s, had died. “They killed my son … this is his shoe,” she wailed.
No one immediately claimed responsibility for the attacks in Kabul and northern Mazar-i-Sharif. The Taliban strongly condemned the bombings and blamed “invader enemies”.
Afghanistan has a history of tension and violence between Sunnis and the Shi’ite minority. But since the fall of the Taliban the country had avoided the large scale sectarian attacks that have troubled neighbouring Pakistan.
“Afghanistan has been at war for 30 years and terrible things have happened, but one of the things that Afghans have been spared generally has been what appears to be this kind of very targeted sectarian attack,” said Kate Clark, from the Afghanistan Analysts Network.
“We don’t know who planted the bomb yet and it is dangerous to jump to conclusions but if it was Taliban, it marks something really serious, and dangerous, and very troubling.”