Gunmen on Friday attacked a memorial service for a minority Shiite leader in Kabul, killing at least 29 people and wounding more than 55 others in the first major attack on the Afghan capital since the United States achieved a troop withdrawal agreement with the Taliban.
The attack took place in the predominantly Hazara Dasht-e-Barchi neighborhood of Kabul during a commemorative ceremony for Abdul Ali Mazari, the leader of the Afghan minority Hazaras, who was killed in 1995 by the Taliban.
A number of senior Afghan officials, including top political leader Abdullah Abdullah, the country’s chief executive officer and one of the main candidates in the presidential elections last year, attended the ceremony when the attack began.
Abdullah escaped unharmed, but at least 27 people, all civilians, were killed, according to Afghan Interior Ministry spokesman Nasrat Rahimi.
“The attack began with a boom, apparently a rocket landed in the area, Abdullah and a few other politicians … escaped the attack unharmed,” Abdullah spokesman Fraidoon Kwazoon told Reuters , also present.
The main Afghan TV channel, Tolo News, showed live footage of people running for cover while gunfire was heard.
Islamic State group claims responsibility
A few hours later, the Islamic State (IS) group claimed responsibility for the attack, the group’s Amaq news agency reported on its Telegram application channel.
The group’s regional body, the Islamic State of Khorasan (IS-K), has published a photograph of two men who, according to him, were suicide bombers seated in front of a black flag and surrounded by automatic rifles, cartridges and grenades .
The attack came just days after the United States and the Taliban signed an ambitious peace agreement that paves the way for the withdrawal of American forces from Afghanistan. Any withdrawal of American troops would be linked in part to the Taliban’s promises to fight terrorism and the IS group.
Afghan President Ashraf Ghani tweeted that the attack was “a crime against humanity and the national unity of Afghanistan”.
Ghani said he called Abdullah, his longtime political rival, on the phone. Abdullah challenges an announcement by the Election Commission last month declaring Ghani victorious in the September presidential election.
President Ghani called Mr. Abdullah Abdullah and Mr. Khalili after the terrorist attack took place at a meeting they attended to ensure their well-being. In today’s terrorist attack, we have lost so many of our innocent fellow citizens. It’s a sad day.
– Sediq Sediqqi (@SediqSediqqi) March 6, 2020
Panic at the site of the attack, mourning in the morgues
Dozens of relatives gathered at a hospital morgue not far from the explosion, many of whom burst into tears while waiting to identify their loved ones.
Ambulances and stretchers moved back and forth to the hospital to deliver the injured to care.
“I was at the ceremony when the shots started. I rushed to the door to get out of the area, but suddenly my foot was hit by a bullet,” Mukhtar Jan told Reuters on a stretcher in the hospital.
Ali Attayee, at the hospital to support his injured brother, said: “Those who committed this crime want to destroy our people at this point in society, we are sorry for those who commit such crimes.”
Several television journalists were covering the ceremony inside a walled compound when the gunmen began to shoot, and a journalist and cameraman from a local broadcaster were among the injured.
Karim Khalili, the head of the High Council for Peace in Afghanistan, was delivering a speech when the gunfire interrupted him. He was not injured and then went on television to report the violence.
After opening fire, the two gunmen locked themselves in a half-finished building, which resulted in a five-hour deadlock with the security forces. The gunmen were eventually killed and security forces cleaned up the building, according to the interior ministry.
Trump says Taliban may “eventually” take power
The attack, one of the deadliest in Afghanistan this year, has been condemned by the United States, the EU and NATO.
“We strongly condemn today’s vicious attack … We support Afghanistan for peace,” wrote US Kabul charge d’affaires Ross Wilson on Twitter.
The United States has sought to lead efforts to continue the peace accords. Violence subsided during a seven-day deal with the Taliban ahead of last Saturday’s deal, although the Taliban have since resumed attacks on Afghan forces.
President Donald Trump told reporters on Friday that the Taliban could “possibly” overtake the democratically elected Afghan government after the US withdrawal.
“Countries have to take care of themselves,” Trump told reporters at the White House. “You can only hold someone’s hand for so long.”
When asked if the Taliban could possibly take power, Trump replied that “it is not supposed to be that way, but it will probably be.”
(FRANCE 24 with AFP, AP and REUTERS)