Twin blasts at Afghan shrines on the Shiite holy day of Ashura killed at least 58 people on Tuesday with one massive suicide attack in Kabul ripping through a crowd of worshippers including children.
The blast in Kabul and another in the northern city of Mazar-i-Sharif came a day after an international meeting in Germany meant to further efforts to end the Afghan war, 10 years after U.S.-led forces drove the Taliban from power.
At least 54 people including children were killed in the huge explosion at the entrance to a riverside shrine in central Kabul, where hundreds of singing Shiite Muslims had gathered to mark Ashura, an official said.
The Taliban condemned the attacks as the brutal work of “enemies,” a spokesman for the insurgent group said.
“Very sadly we heard that there were explosions in Kabul and Mazar-i-Sharif, where people were killed by the enemy's un-Islamic and inhuman activity,” Zabihullah Mujahid said in an emailed statement
“The Islamic Emirate strongly condemns such a cruel, indiscriminate and un-Islamic attack,” the statement added, using the name by which insurgent group refers to itself.
“Fifty-four are dead and 150 others are injured,” health ministry spokesman Ghulam Sakhi Kargar Noorughli said, according to AFP.
A young girl, dressed in a green shalwar kameez that was smeared in blood, stood shrieking as she was surrounded by the crumpled, piled-up bodies of children.
“I was there watching people mourning (for Ashura) when there was suddenly a huge explosion,” witness Ahmed Fawad said.
“Some people around me fell down injured. I wasn’t hurt, so I got up and started running. It was horrible,” he said.
Men and women at the scene sobbed as they surveyed the carnage, and screamed slogans denouncing al-Qaeda and the Taliban.
Sectarian violence has been rare in Afghanistan but when the Sunni Taliban ruled in the 1990s, minority Shiites from the Hazara group suffered brutal persecution.
Shiites beat and whip themselves in religious fervor during the 10-day Ashura ceremonies, which began on November 27 but peak Tuesday. They mark the seventh-century killing of a grandson of the Prophet Mohammed.
Shiites were banned from marking Ashura in public under the Taliban. Sunnis oppose the public display of grief, but sectarian violence has not been common in Afghanistan since the Taliban were ousted in late 2001.
“A suicide bomber detonated his explosives in the Abu-Ul Fazil shrine,” Kabul police said in a statement.
A security official speaking on condition of anonymity said it was believed the bomber had arrived with a group of Shiite pilgrims from Logar province, south of Kabul.
Separately, four people were killed in Mazar-i-Sharif when another blast struck a shrine in the northern city as crowds gathered for Ashura. It was not immediately clear whether Shiites were the target.
Lal Mohammed Ahmadzai, a police spokesman for northern Afghanistan, said that the blast was caused by a bicycle bomb, adding that four other people had also been injured.
And police said that five people were wounded by a motorcycle bomb in the southern city of Kandahar, the Taliban’s heartland. But the police said the attack was unconnected to Ashura.
The blasts came the day after delegates at a key international conference in Bonn agreed to extend international support for Afghanistan to 2024 following the scheduled withdrawal of all foreign combat troops by the end of 2014.
Pakistan and the Taliban -- both seen as pivotal to any end to the bloody strife in Afghanistan -- boycotted the talks, undermining already modest hopes for real progress.
There are around 140,000 international forces in Afghanistan, mostly from the United States, fighting the 10-year Taliban-led insurgency.
Ashura marks the slaughter of Imam Hussein, the grandson of the Prophet Mohammed, near Karbala by armies of the caliph Yazid in 680 AD.
Tradition holds that the revered imam was decapitated and his body mutilated. His death was a formative event in Shiite Islam.
On Monday, at least 28 people were killed and 78 wounded in a wave of bomb attacks in central Iraq against Shiite pilgrims making their way to Karbala.
According to the U.N., the number of civilians killed in violence in Afghanistan rose by 15 percent in the first six months of this year to 1,462, with insurgents blamed for 80 percent of the killings.
Afghan President Hamid Karzai said on Tuesday that twin blasts were the first “terrorist” acts on an important holy day.
It was “the first time that, on such an important religious day in Afghanistan, terrorism of that horrible nature is taking place,” Karzai told reporters, a day after an international conference in Bonn on the country’s future.
“We all wish the best for those who are injured and a quick recovery and patience to the families of those who have lost their dear ones,” he said at a joint press conference with German Chancellor Angela Merkel.
Merkel also expressed her condolences over the attacks, adding that they showed “we must continue to work hard in order to be able to ensure security in Afghanistan.”
On Monday a major conference on Afghanistan’s future after NATO combat troops leave in 2014 pledged sustained support for another decade, in exchange for clear progress on good governance.