Afghan President Hamid Karzai cut short a European trip and returned to Kabul today to visit the scores of wounded and the bereaved families of those killed in an unprecedented sectarian assault on a Shiite shrine in the capital.
A suicide bomber killed 56 Shiite worshippers and injured more than 160 others yesterday outside a shrine where hundreds had gathered to commemorate the holiday of Ashoura, which honours the death of Imam Hussein, a grandson of the Prophet Muhammad, in 680 AD.
A US citizen was among the dead, according to a statement issued by the American embassy in Kabul. The deceased was not a government employee, US Embassy spokeswoman Megan Ellis said, but declined to give further details.
The blast, coupled with another smaller explosion in a northern city which killed four people in a holiday vehicle convoy, marked the first major assault on a Muslim sect in Afghanistan in recent memory.
Mr Karzai said in a statement shortly after the blast that the attack on Shiites was unprecedented in scope and marked the first time that one had been carried out during a religious event.
His office said today that he had arrived back in Kabul, cutting short a trip to Britain and Germany, and planned to spend the day visiting the wounded in city hospitals.
As families gathered for funerals across the city, it was still unclear what the political reverberations of the attack might be.
The Taliban condemned the attack, which was reminiscent of the wave of sectarian bloodshed that shook Iraq during the height of the war there. Suspicion centred on militant groups based in neighbouring Pakistan, where Sunni attacks on minority Shiites are common.
A man who claimed to be from Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, a Pakistan-based group that has carried out attacks against Shiite Muslims, called various media outlets in Pakistan to claim responsibility for the bombing in Kabul. The validity of the claim could not be determined.
Until now, the decade-long Afghan war has largely been spared sectarian violence, where civilians are targeted simply for their membership of a particular religious group.
Yesterday's attack suggests that at least some militant groups may have changed tactics, taking aim at ethnic minorities such as the Hazara who are largely Shiite and support the Afghan government and its Western partners.
Afghanistan's Shiite community of mostly Hazaras make up about 20% of the nation's 30 million population. Hard-line Sunnis consider Shiites non-believers because their customs and traditions differ from the majority sect.