KUNDUZ: Relatives lower into a grave the body of a victim of suicide bomb attack on worshippers at a Shiite mosque, in which at least 55 people died, during the funeral at a graveyard in Kunduz yesterday. – AFP

KUNDUZ: Mourners from Afghanistan’s minority Shiite community buried their dead yesterday after a suicide attack on a mosque killed more than 60 people, marking the bloodiest assault since US forces left the country in August. A gravedigger in the Shiite cemetery overlooking the northern city of Kunduz told AFP they had handled 62 bodies, and local reports suggested the final toll could be up to 100.

Scores more victims were also wounded in Friday’s blast, which was claimed by the Islamic State group and appeared designed to further destabilise Afghanistan in the wake of the Taleban takeover. The regional branch of the sectarian IS, known as Islamic State-Khorasan (IS-K), has repeatedly targeted Shiites in Afghanistan. It is a Sunni Islamist group like the Taleban, but the two are bitter rivals. IS-K said the attack was carried out by a Uyghur Muslim suicide bomber who had “detonated an explosive vest amid a crowd” of Shiite worshippers.

The attack happened during Friday prayers – the most important of the week for Muslims – and residents of the city told AFP that hundreds of worshippers were inside. In a heart-wrenching scene, relatives gathered around the newly-dug graves in Kunduz wailed inconsolably over their loved ones. “We are really hurt by what happened,” Zemarai Mubarak Zada, 42, told AFP as he mourned his 17-year-old nephew, who he said had wanted to follow in his footsteps and become a doctor. “He wanted to get married. He wanted to go to university,” he said.

‘Terrifying’
Images from the scene of the attack Friday showed debris strewn inside the mosque, its windows blown out by the explosion. Some men were seen carrying a body draped in a bloody sheet to an ambulance. “It was a very terrifying incident,” said a teacher in Kunduz, who lives near the mosque. “Many of our neighbors have been killed and wounded. A 16-year-old neighbor was killed. They couldn’t find half of his body.” Aminullah, an eyewitness whose brother was at the mosque, said: “After I heard the explosion, I called my brother but he did not pick up.” “I walked towards the mosque and found my brother wounded and faint. We immediately took him to the MSF hospital.”

‘Horrific attack’
The Taleban’s efforts to consolidate power have been undermined by a series of deadly IS-K attacks. The Taleban security chief in the northern city accused the mosque attackers of trying to foment trouble between Shiites and Sunnis. “We assure our Shiite brothers that in the future, we will provide security for them and that such problems will not happen to them,” Mulawi Dost Muhammad said.

The attack was met with broad international condemnation, with UN chief Antonio Guterres calling for the perpetrators to be brought to justice. Guterres “condemns in the strongest terms today’s horrific attack”, the third against a religious institution in Afghanistan in a week, his spokesman said. Viewed as heretics by Sunni extremists such as IS, Shiite Muslims have suffered some of Afghanistan’s most violent assaults, with rallies bombed, hospitals targeted and commuters ambushed.

Shiites make up about 20 percent of the Afghan population. Many of them are Hazara, an ethnic group that has been persecuted for decades. In October 2017, an IS suicide attacker struck a Shiite mosque in the west of Kabul, killing 56 people and wounding 55. And in May this year, a series of bombings outside a school in the capital killed at least 85 people, mostly young girls. More than 300 were wounded in this attack on the Hazara community.

US-Taleban talks
Michael Kugelman, a South Asia expert at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, told AFP the Taleban would find it difficult to consolidate power unless they tackle terrorism and the growing economic crisis. “If the Taleban, as is likely, is unable to address these concerns, it will struggle to gain domestic legitimacy, and we could see the emergence of a new armed resistance,” he said. The United States was meanwhile holding its first face-to-face with the Taleban since its troops withdrew, at a meeting in Doha yesterday. The US delegation would press the Taleban to ensure terrorists do not create a base for attacks in the country, a State Department official said.

It was also pressuring Afghanistan’s new rulers to form an inclusive government and to respect the rights of women and girls, the official said, stressing the meeting did not indicate Washington recognized Taleban rule. “We remain clear that any legitimacy must be earned through the Taleban’s own actions,” the official said. The Taleban are seeking international recognition, as well as assistance to avoid a humanitarian disaster and ease Afghanistan’s economic crisis. – AFP