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Gunmen stage deadly attack on Shiite memorial service in Afghan capital

Relatives of an Afghan killed in an attack on a Shiite memorial service leave a Kabul hospital, Afghanistan, on March 6, 2020.
Relatives of an Afghan killed in an attack on a Shiite memorial service leave a Kabul hospital, Afghanistan, on March 6, 2020. © Omar Sobhani, REUTERS

Gunmen attacked a memorial ceremony for a minority Shiite leader in Kabul Friday, killing at least 29 people and wounding more than 55 others in the first major attack on the Afghan capital since the US reached a troop withdrawal agreement with the Taliban.

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The attack occurred in the predominantly Hazara Dasht-e-Barchi neighbourhood of Kabul during a memorial ceremony for Abdul Ali Mazari, the leader of Afghanistan's minority ethnic Hazaras, who was killed in 1995 by the Taliban.

A number of senior Afghan officials, including top political leader Abdullah Abdullah, the country's chief executive and a leading contender in last year's presidential election, were attending the ceremony when the attack began.

Abdullah escaped unharmed, but at least 27 people, all civilians, were killed, according to Afghan Interior Ministry spokesman Nasrat Rahimi.

"The attack started with a boom, apparently a rocket landed in the area, Abdullah and some other politicians ... escaped the attack unhurt," Abdullah's spokesman, Fraidoon Kwazoon, who was also present, told Reuters by telephone.

Leading Afghan broadcaster Tolo News showed live footage of people running for cover as gunfire was heard.

Islamic State group claims responsibility

Hours later, the Islamic State (IS) group claimed responsibility for the attack, the group’s Amaq news agency reported on its Telegram app channel.

The group’s regional arm, the Islamic State in Khorasan (IS-K), posted a photograph of two men it claimed were the suicide bombers sitting before a black flag and surrounded by automatic rifles, bullet cartridges and grenades.

The attack came just days after the US and the Taliban signed an ambitious peace deal that lays out a conditions-based path to the withdrawal of American forces from Afghanistan. Any US troop pullout would be tied in part to promises by the Taliban to fight terrorism and the IS group.

Afghan President Ashraf Ghani tweeted that the attack was "a crime against humanity and against the national unity of Afghanistan".

Ghani said he had telephoned Abdullah, his longtime political rival. Abdullah is contesting an Electoral Commission announcement last month declaring Ghani the winner of September's presidential election.

 

Panic at attack site, mourning in morgues

Dozens of relatives gathered at the morgue of a hospital not far from the blast, with many breaking down in tears as they waited to identify their loved ones.

Ambulances and stretchers bustled back and forth at the hospital to deliver the wounded for treatment.

"I was at the ceremony when gunshots started. I rushed toward the door to get out of the area but suddenly my foot was hit by a bullet," Mukhtar Jan told Reuters from a stretcher at the hospital.

Ali Attayee, at the hospital to support his wounded brother, said: "Those who committed this crime want to destroy our people at this juncture in society, we're sorry for those committing such crimes."

Several TV journalists were covering the ceremony inside a walled compound when the gunmen began shooting, and a reporter and a cameraman for a local broadcaster were among the wounded.

Karim Khalili, the chief of Afghanistan's high peace council, was delivering a speech when the gunfire interrupted him. He was not hurt and later went on TV to denounce the violence.

After opening fire, the two gunmen holed up in a half-finished apartment building, leading to a five-hour standoff with security forces. The gunmen were eventually killed and security forces were clearing the building, according to the Interior Ministry.

Trump says Taliban could ‘possibly’ seize power

The attack, one of the deadliest in Afghanistan this year, was condemned by the US, the EU and NATO.

"We strongly condemn today’s vicious attack ... We stand with Afghanistan for peace," the United States chargé d'affaires in Kabul Ross Wilson wrote on Twitter.

The US has sought to spearhead efforts towards a lasting peace arrangement. Violence decreased during a seven-day hold-down accord with the Taliban before last Saturday's deal, though the Taliban has since resumed attacks on Afghan forces.

Speaking to reporters Friday, US President Donald Trump said the Taliban could “possibly” overrun the democratically elected Afghan government after the US withdrawal.

"Countries have to take care of themselves," Trump told reporters at the White House. "You can only hold someone's hand for so long."

Asked if the Taliban could eventually seize power, Trump said it's "not supposed to happen that way but it possibly will".

(FRANCE 24 with AFP, AP and REUTERS)

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