MAZAR-I-SHARIF, Afghanistan: At least 14 Shiites were killed Wednesday in a powerful blast at a mosque in northern Afghanistan, the second deadly attack on the minority in as many days during the major festival of Ashura.
“The explosion happened at the gate of the Shiite mosque in the center of Balkh district (in Balkh province),” said the provincial governor’s spokesman Munir Ahmad Farhad, adding that 14 people were killed and 28 injured. His account was confirmed by the provincial deputy police chief.
The blast came as the Islamic State group claimed responsibility for twin attacks in Kabul Tuesday that also targeted Shiites, killing up to 18 people and wounding dozens.
Witnesses said gunmen entered the Karte Sakhi shrine near Kabul University late Tuesday, firing indiscriminately on men, women and children as they tried to flee. The interior ministry said one was wearing a suicide vest.
At the same time, another attacker entered a nearby mosque and took an unspecified number of people hostages as they were commemorating Ashura, the ministry said.
The UN called the attack an “atrocity” and put the toll at 18, though the interior ministry later said it was 16.
White House National Security Council spokesman Ned Price said the attacks were “cowardly” and “clearly designed to stoke sectarian tension” in the country.
Sectarian attacks have been relatively rare in Afghanistan, unlike neighboring Pakistan where violence — particularly by Sunni hardliners against the Shiite minority — has claimed thousands of lives over the past decade.
However, the threat of attacks on Shiites was considered particularly serious during Ashura, and many foreign embassies in Kabul had restricted staff movements until the end of the week. Ashura, marked on Wednesday, commemorates the death of Imam Hussein, grandson of the Prophet Muhammad, who was assassinated in the year 680 and whose tragic end laid the foundation for the faith practiced by the Shiite community.