A suicide blast ripped through a packed Shiite Muslim mosque in northern Afghanistan yesterday, killing 50 people and injuring dozens.
The so-called Islamic State group has already claimed responsibility for the explosion, according to a statement released by the group’s news agency, Amaq.
It added that a suicide bomber detonated his explosive vest among Shia worshipers inside a mosque during Friday Prayers in the city of Kunduz.
The attack was the latest in a series of IS bombings and shootings that have targeted Afghanistan’s new Taliban rulers, as well as religious institutions and members of the country’s minority Shiites.
The explosion tore through the mosque during noon prayers, the highlight of the Muslim religious week.
It blew out windows, charred the ceiling and scattered debris and twisted metal across the floor.
Area resident Hussaindad Rezayee said he rushed to the mosque when he heard the explosion, just as prayers started.
He said: ‘I came to look for my relatives, the mosque was full.’
The worshippers were Hazaras, who have long suffered from double discrimination as an ethnic minority and as followers of Shiite Islam in a majority Sunni country.
IS has been behind a rise in attacks, including against the Taliban, since the departure of US and Nato forces from Afghanistan at the end of August.
IS and the Taliban – who seized control of the country with the exit of the foreign troops in August – are strategic rivals, and IS militants have even targeted their positions.
In the past, the Taliban managed to contain the IS threat in tandem with US and Afghan air strikes.
Without these, it remains unclear whether the Taliban can suppress what appears to be a growing IS footprint.
The militants, once confined to the east, have penetrated the capital of Kabul and other provinces with new attacks.
Senior Taliban officials and US representatives are set to hold talks this weekend about containing the extremist group and easing the evacuation of foreign citizens and Afghans from the country.
This is the first such meeting since US forces withdrew from the country in late August, ending a 20-year military presence there and leading to the Taliban regaining power in the nation.
In Kunduz, police officials were still picking up the pieces on Friday at the Gozar-e-Sayed Abad Mosque.
Citing preliminary reports, the deputy Taliban police chief of Kunduz province, Dost Mohammad Obaida, said more than 100 people had been killed or wounded, and that he believed the dead outnumbered the wounded.
An official at the Kunduz provincial hospital said at least 46 people had been killed and 51 wounded.
He said the figures were preliminary because casualties were being transferred to private hospitals as well, however, this is already the highest death toll in an attack since foreign troops left Afghanistan.
The United Nations mission in the country condemned the attack as ‘part of a disturbing pattern of violence’ targeting religious institutions.
Mr Obaida pledged to protect minorities in the province and added: ‘I assure our Shiite brothers that the Taliban are prepared to ensure their safety.’
A prominent Shiite cleric, Sayed Hussain Alimi Balkhi, condemned the attack and called on the Taliban to provide security for the Shiites of Afghanistan.
He said: ‘We expect the security forces of the government to provide security for the mosques since they collected the weapons that were provided for the security of the worship places.’
The new tone struck by the Taliban, at least in Kunduz, is in sharp contrast to the well-documented history of Taliban fighters committing a litany of atrocities against minorities, including Hazaras.
The Taliban, now feeling the weight of governing, employed similar tactics to those of IS during their 20-year insurgency, including suicide bombings and shooting ambushes, and they have not halted attacks on Hazaras.
Earlier this week, a report by Amnesty International found the Taliban unlawfully killed 13 Hazaras, including a 17-year-old girl, in Daykundi province, after members of the security forces of the former government surrendered.
In Kunduz province, Hazaras make up about 6% of the population of nearly a million people.
The province also has a large ethnic Uzbek population that has been targeted for recruitment.
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