At least 55 people died in Afghanistan yesterday when a suicide bomber blew himself up at a Shia shrine in Kabul, igniting fears of a new and unprecedented phase of sectarian violence in the Sunni-majority country.
The victims were celebrating Ashura, the most important holiday in the Shia calendar. The attack – disowned by the Taliban – was the deadliest in Afghanistan since 2008. Some Afghan officials and analysts immediately blamed Pakistan for the attack, saying insurgent groups based there wanted to foment unrest between Afghans.
"They [Pakistan] carried out this attack because they want to change the face of the war in Afghanistan, from an insurgency to a civil war," said Wahiullah Rahmani, the founder and director of the Kabul Centre for Strategic Studies. "They want Afghan people to fight each other. This is why they attacked the Shia people. The Pakistani people want to separate Afghan people and make them the enemies of each other."
Speaking in Bonn, where he had been attending an international conference on his country's future, President Hamid Karzai said it was "the first time that, on such an important religious day in Afghanistan, terrorism of that horrible nature is taking place". He cancelled a trip to the UK to head back to Kabul.
The blast in Kabul killed 55 people, including four children and two women, and injured 134 others, according to a statement released by the Kabul police. Outside the Emergency Hospital in Kabul's Shahr-e Naw commercial district, a mob of more than 300 people soon congregated, some offering to give blood, others desperately trying to find out whether their relatives were among the dead and injured that had been admitted. Many were in the black robes worn during the Ashura ceremony.
People fearfully examined a heap of bloody shoes and scarves matted with flesh that had been removed from victims and left outside the hospital's main gates. A child-sized green flip flop was on top of the heap.
An elderly woman clad in a black headscarf and long black cloak grabbed a pair of shoes she recognised and fell to the ground, wailing, as she clutched them to her chest.
The explosion, just before noon at the Abul Fazl shrine in the Murad Khane area of Kabul, was followed soon after by an explosion in the northern city of Mazar-e-Sharif that killed four people and injured 27 others.
Explosives were placed on a bicycle parked in Alikozai Square, about 400m from the Blue Mosque, and were detonated remotely, said the deputy provincial police chief, Abdul Rawuf Taj. It was intended to disrupt an Ashura procession. A second bomb was defused.
There was a third explosion in Kandahar, according to Zalmai Ayoubi, a spokesman for the provincial governor. There were no casualties in that attack.
The Taliban condemned the attack, saying it was "against Muslim laws and against humanity". In a statement, Taliban spokesman Zabiullah Mujahid, blamed the attack on "the foreigners or invaders", adding: "With those attacks, they want Afghan civilians to hate the Taliban more and more."
Haji Mohammed Mohaqiq, a leading Shia figure, appealed for calm among Afghans saying this was a time for unity. But he also warned the "enemies of peace and stability in Afghanistan" that the killings would be avenged.
"This attack is unacceptable," Haji Mohaqiq said. "We will respond to this enemy attack. We will not forget this attack. We will have our revenge on our enemies."
Asked who he thought was responsible for the violence, he answered: "It is obvious it is Pakistan; Pakistan is always trying to carry out violent attacks in Afghanistan." The Hazaras, who are Shia Muslims, were treated harshly under the Taliban regime and were not allowed to observe religious holidays such as yesterday's.
Since the hardline Sunni regime was ousted in 2001, sectarian attacks in Afghanistan have been rare. Such attacks, however, are common in Iraq and Pakistan.
The suicide bomb at the shrine produced the highest death toll in a single incident in Afghanistan since the blast at the Indian embassy in Kabul in 2008, which killed 60 people.
The site at the Abl Fazl shrine was sealed off by Afghan National Security Forces. Meanwhile a skirmish broke out between Sunni and Shia students at Balkh University in Mazar-e-Sharif.
Ashura: The most important day of the year
The festival of Ashura is the most important day of the year for Shia Muslims who use it to commemorate the martyrdom of the Prophet Mohammed's grandson, Hussein ibn Ali, in 680AD – one of the events that contributed to the split between Shia and Sunni denominations.
Although all Muslims celebrate the day with a voluntary fast, it is only Shia Muslims who spend it in prayer and re-enacting the events that led to Hussein's death.
About 15 percent of Afghans are Shia and until now there have been few incidents of sectarian violence in the country.