Twin blasts at Afghan shrines on the Shiite holy day of Ashura left at least 58 people dead on Tuesday, with one massive suicide attack inKabul ripping through a crowd of worshippers including children.
The attack in the capital and another in the northern city of Mazar-i-Sharif came a day after an international meeting in Germany aimed at charting a course for Afghanistan, 10 years after US-led forces drove the Taliban from power.
The Kabul blast alone killed 54 people, in the deadliest strike on the capital in three years. The Taliban condemned the attacks as “inhumane” and instead blamed the bloodshed on the “invading enemy”.
The explosion erupted at the entrance to a riverside shrine in central Kabul, where hundreds of singing Shiite Muslims had gathered to mark Ashura, with men whipping their bare backs as part of the traditional mourning.
“I was there watching people mourning when there was suddenly a huge explosion,” witness Ahmad 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.
A young girl, dressed in a green shalwar kameez smeared in blood, stood shrieking, surrounded by the crumpled bodies of slain children.
One person wounded in the attack, Sayed Gharib, described the horrific scenes in an interview from his hospital bed.
“There was a huge bang close to where I was standing, I felt a pain in my legs and hands and fell down. I saw a lot of people covered in blood around me,” he said.
Health ministry spokesman Ghulam Sakhi Kargar Noorughli told AFP that 54 were dead in the Kabul attack and another 150 were injured.
Separately, four people were killed in Mazar-i-Sharif when another blast struck a shrine in the northern city. It was not immediately clear whether Shiites were the target.
The explosion was caused by a bicycle bomb, said Lal Mohammad Ahmadzai, a police spokesman for northern Afghanistan, adding that another four people were injured.
There was no immediate claim of responsibility for either of the attacks, which were condemned by President Hamid Karzai who is still in Germany following the Bonn conference.
When the Sunni Taliban ruled in the 1990s, minority Shiites from the Hazara group suffered brutal persecution, but in recent years sectarian violence has been rare and the Kabul blast is thought to be the worst attack of its kind.
During the 10-day Ashura ceremonies, which peaked on Tuesday, Shiites beat themselves with knives and chains in religious fervour as they mark the seventh-century killing of a grandson of the Prophet Mohammed.
Shiites were banned from marking Ashura in public under the Taliban.
An Afghan security official speaking on condition of anonymity said it was believed the bomber at the Kabul shrine had arrived with a group of Shiite pilgrims from Logar province, south of Kabul.
Another security official said the capital was now on high alert, with extra security forces deployed in case of any follow-up attacks.
Kabul has been hit by an increasing number of spectacular attacks in 2011, including the September assassination of former president Burhanuddin Rabbani at his home, which hit hard any hopes for Taliban reconciliation.
In the southern city of Kandahar, the Taliban’s heartland, police said another five people were wounded in a motorcycle bomb but that it was not connected to Ashura.
The blasts came the day after delegates at the Bonn conference 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 ending Afghanistan’s long war — boycotted the talks, undermining already modest hopes for progress.
There are around 140,000 international forces in Afghanistan, most from the United States, fighting the 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.