Thirty two people were killed and dozens injured when an Islamic State suicide bomber targeted a crowded Shia mosque in the Afghan capital Kabul on Monday, officials said, the third major attack on the minority community in the city since July.
The attacker entered the Baqir-ul-Olum mosque shortly after midday as worshippers had gathered for a ceremony, the interior ministry said.
The health ministry said at least 32 people were killed and 85 wounded but the toll could rise.
A statement in Arabic from Islamic State’s Amaq news agency said one of its fighters had targeted the mosque.
“I heard a blast and dust covered the whole mosque,” said worshipper Nadir Ali.
“When the dust settled down, I saw the mosque was full of flesh and blood. I was injured in my waist and had to crawl out of the mosque.”
“I was in the mosque, the people were offering prayers. Suddenly I heard a bang and windows broke. I had no idea what had happened. I rushed out screaming,” Ali Jan, another worshipper, told AFP.
Bloody sectarian rivalry between Sunni and Shia Muslims has been relatively rare in Afghanistan, a majority Sunni country, but the attack underlines the deadly new dimension that growing ethnic tension could bring to its decades-long conflict.
Islamic State, based mainly in the eastern state of Nangarhar on the border with Pakistan, has gradually expanded its reach since emerging in Afghanistan last year with a reputation for hardline fundamentalism and brutality.
Already there had been two major recent attacks on Shia targets in Kabul, both claimed by Islamic State.
Last month, 14 people were killed when a gunman in police uniform opened fire on worshippers who were gathered at a Shia shrine for the Ashura festival.
In July, more than 80 people were killed in an attack on a demonstration by the mainly Shia Hazara minority.
Any resurgence of sectarian or ethnic violence could threaten the fragile stability of the government headed by President Ashraf Ghani, who described the “vicious attack” as an attempt “to sow seeds of discord”.
Government Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah said Afghanistan should not fall victim to “enemy plots that divide us by titles”.
US Gen. John W Nicholson, commander of the US-led Resolute Support Mission in Afghanistan, condemned the bombing.
“On behalf of the men and women of Resolute Support, we offer our condolences to the families of the innocent men, women and children killed and wounded in today’s attack,” Nicholson said. “We will continue to stand with our Afghan partners and do everything possible to secure a peaceful, stable Afghanistan.”
Shias in Afghanistan make up an estimated 15% of the country’s population of around 30 million. Their public celebrations and commemorations were largely banned during the five years when the Taliban controlled the country. But Afghanistan’s Shias have become more public since the extremists were overthrown in the US invasion of 2001.