Dozens of people were killed when gunmen opened fire at a political rally in Kabul on Friday in the deadliest assault in Afghanistan since the US signed a withdrawal deal with the Taliban.
The attack highlights a glaring lack of security in the Afghan capital just 14 months ahead of the scheduled withdrawal of all foreign forces under an agreement signed on February 29 by the US and Islamic militants.
Health ministry spokesman Wahidullah Mayar told AFP that 32 people had been killed including five women, while another 58 people were wounded.
Interior ministry spokesman Nasrat Rahimi put the death toll at 29, with an additional 61 wounded. He said special forces units had carried out clearance operations, killing the two gunmen who conducted the attack.
The Taliban immediately denied responsibility for the assault, which occurred at a commemoration ceremony for Abdul Ali Mazari — a politician from the Hazara ethnic group, most of whom are Shiite Muslims.
The Islamic State group claimed an attack on the same ceremony last year, when a barrage of mortar fire killed at least 11 people.
Rahimi said gunfire had erupted from a construction site near the ceremony in the city’s west, which is largely Shiite.
Photos on social media showed several dead bodies being collected from the scene.
President Ashraf Ghani condemned the massacre, calling it a “crime against humanity”.
The ceremony was attended by many of the country’s political elite, including Afghanistan’s chief executive Abdullah Abdullah.
The interior ministry later confirmed that “all the high-ranking officials were safely evacuated from the scene”.
“We left the ceremony following the gunfire, and a number of people were wounded, but I do not have any reports of martyred people for now,” Hazara leader Mohammad Mohaqiq told Tolo News.
– Continued violence –
The mass shooting comes less than a week after the US and Taliban signed a deal that would pave the way for the complete withdrawal of foreign troops in 14 months.
The withdrawal hinges to a great extent on the Taliban being able to control jihadist forces such as Islamic State.
If such groups remain, so too does the American military.
A spokesman for US Forces-Afghanistan said the response to Friday’s attack was “Afghan-led”, but the Americans provided medical assistance to the victims.
Since the much-trumpeted deal signing in Doha last weekend, fighting has continued to rage across Afghanistan, casting a pall over hopes the agreement would lead to a reduction in violence and talks between the Taliban and the Afghan government.
Kabul and the Taliban are supposed to meet in Oslo next week, but these discussions look likely to be delayed by a disagreement over a mass prisoner release.
The US-Taliban deal states the Afghan government should release as many as 5,000 Taliban prisoners before the talks’ supposed start date of March 10, but President Ghani has rejected that commitment.
The blame game got underway Friday, when the Taliban’s political spokesman Suhail Shaheen said the insurgents were ready for talks — but only if the prisoners were released.
“If the negotiations are delayed beyond the stated date, the responsibility will rest with the others,” Shaheen said on Twitter.
Islamic State, which follows a radical Sunni interpretation of Islam, first became active in Afghanistan in 2015 and for years held territory in the eastern province of Nangarhar.
It has claimed responsibility for a string of horrific bombings, including several in Kabul targeting the city’s Shiite community.
In recent months the group has been hit by mounting setbacks after being hunted for years by US and Afghan forces along with multiple Taliban offensives targeting their fighters.
Still, it remains in Afghanistan, notably in eastern Kunar province near the Pakistan border, which also neighbours Nangarhar, as well as in Kabul.