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KABUL: An Afghan woman weeps at the site of a suicide attack here on Saturday.—Reuters
KABUL: An Afghan woman weeps at the site of a suicide attack here on Saturday.—Reuters

KABUL: Twin explosions tore through a demonstration by members of Afghanistan’s mainly Shia Hazara community in Kabul on Saturday, killing at least 80 people and wounding more than 230 in a suicide attack claimed by the militant Islamic State (IS) group.

Graphic television footage from the site of the attack showed many dead bodies lying on the bloodied road, close to where thousands of Hazaras had been demonstrating over the route of a planned multi-million-dollar electricity line.

A statement from the interior ministry said 80 people had been killed and 231 wounded, taking it among the deadliest single attacks since the Taliban were driven from power in the US-led campaign in 2001.

“Based on initial information, the attack was carried out by three suicide bombers… The third attacker was gunned down by security forces,” a spokesman for the ministry said.

Taliban deny involvement in the suicide attack

The country’s main intelligence agency, the National Directorate of Security, said the attack was masterminded by Abu Ali, an IS leader in Nangarhar’s volatile Achin district.

IS statement

“Two fighters from Islamic State detonated explosive belts at a gathering of Shias in the city of Kabul in Afghanistan,” said a brief statement by the militant group’s Amaq news agency.

If confirmed as the work of IS, the attack would represent a major escalation for a group which has hitherto been largely confined to the province of Nangarhar.

The explicit reference to the Hazaras’ Shia affiliation also represents a menacing departure for Afghanistan, where the bloody sectarian rivalry between Sunnis and Shias typical of Iraq has been relatively rare, despite decades of war.

The Persian-speaking Hazaras, estimated to make up about nine per cent of the population, are Afghanis­tan’s third-largest minority but they have long suffered discrimination and thousands were killed during the period of Taliban rule.

“It’s long been a fear about Afghanistan that IS-aligned forces will try to inject a sectarian dimension into a largely non-sectarian conflict,” Michael Kugelman, an analyst at the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington, said.

The worst previous attack against the Hazaras was in December 2011, when more than 55 people were killed in Kabul during Ashura. That attack was claimed by a sectarian extremist group called Lashkar-i-Jhangvi.

“We were holding a peaceful demonstration when I heard a bang and then everyone was escaping and yelling,” said Sabira Jan, a protester who witnessed the attack and saw bloodied bodies strewn across the ground. “There was no one to help.”

The Taliban, a fierce enemy of IS, denied any involvement and said in a statement posted on its website that the attack was “a plot to ignite civil war”.

The attack succeeded despite tight security which saw much of the city centre sealed off with stacks of shipping containers and other obstacles and helicopters patrolling overhead.

President Ashraf Ghani declared a national day of mourning and vowed revenge, while the top United Nations official in Afghanistan, Tadamichi Yamamoto, condemned the attack as a war crime. The United States offered any assistance needed to investigate the attack.

The demonstrators had been demanding that a 500kV transmission line from Turkmenistan to Kabul be rerouted through two provinces with large Hazara populations, saying they feared being shut out of the project.

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