Blast at Kabul religious gathering leaves at least 43 dead
At least 43 people were killed in a suicide bombing at a meeting of top clerics in Kabul on Tuesday, officials said, in one of the deadliest attacks to strike Afghanistan this year.
It follows a wave of bloody violence across the war-torn country in recent weeks, with hundreds of people killed as militants step up assaults amid a flurry of diplomatic efforts to end the 17-year conflict.
At least 83 people were wounded in the blast, health ministry spokesman Wahid Majroh said, which targeted religious leaders inside a wedding hall where hundreds had gathered to mark the Prophet Mohammad’s birthday. At least 24 are in a critical condition.
A photo posted on WhatsApp purportedly of the function room showed blood splattered bodies, some with the clothes partially ripped off by the force of the blast, overturned chairs and broken glass strewn over the floor.
"The suicide bomber detonated himself inside the hall during a ceremony involving religious scholars," Kabul police spokesman Basir Mujahid said, confirming the casualty toll.
Italian NGO Emergency said on Twitter that a dozen wounded had been taken to its trauma facility in Kabul, all of them "seriously wounded".
A manager of Uranus Wedding Palace, which also hosts political and religious functions, told AFP the suicide bomber blew himself up in the middle of the gathering of around 1,000 people.
"There are a lot of casualties – I myself have counted 30 casualties," he told AFP on the condition of anonymity.
There was no immediate claim of responsibility for the blast, but the Islamic State group has claimed most recent suicide attacks in Kabul, which has become the most dangerous place in the country for civilians.
It was the bloodiest assault in the Afghan capital since a twin bomb attack on a wrestling club in September that killed at least 26 people and one of the deadliest in the country this year.
A suicide attack on Afghans protesting the appointment of a local police chief in the eastern province of Nangarhar in September killed at least 68 people and wounded another 165. No group claimed the explosion.
In January an ambulance packed with explosives detonated in a crowded street in the heart of Kabul, killing more than 100 people, mostly civilians. The attack was claimed by the Taliban.
Last month’s parliamentary elections sparked a wave of deadly violence across the country, with hundreds killed or wounded in poll-related attacks.
It is not the first time that religious scholars have been targeted by militants in the Islamic country.
In June a suicide bomber struck near a gathering of clerics in Kabul, about an hour after the group had proclaimed such attacks a sin.
The latest attack comes as the Taliban intensifies pressure on Afghan security forces, even as the international community ramps up efforts to convince the group to engage in peace talks.
US envoy Zalmay Khalilzad expressed hopes in Kabul on Sunday that a peace deal to end the 17-year war could be struck before the Afghan presidential election, scheduled for April.
His comments underscore an apparent increasing sense of urgency in the White House and among American diplomats for a peace deal to be done quickly.