At least 100 worshippers have been killed or injured in a suicide bombing that targeted a packed Shia mosque in Afghanistan during Friday prayers.
Responsibility for the blast, which took place in Kunduz, the capital of the province of the same name in the north-east of the country, was claimed by the Islamic State’s local affiliate, Islamic State Khorasan Province (ISKP), which has a long history of attacking Afghanistan’s Shia minority, who make up about 15-20% of the population.
Graphic but unverified images posted on social media showed horrific scenes inside the Gozar-e-Sayed Abad mosque, with bloodied bodies and body parts flung across the inside of the building by the explosion. Other images showed a pall of smoke rising from the mosque.
The attack was the most deadly in the country since a suicide bombing – also claimed by ISKP – at Kabul airport during the US-led withdrawal, which killed 13 US servicemen and 169 Afghans. Photos and video from the scene in Kunduz showed rescuers carrying a body wrapped in a blanket from the mosque to an ambulance.
“Initial information indicates more than 100 people killed and injured in a suicide blast inside the mosque,” the UN’s mission to Afghanistan said in a tweet. Some reports suggested the death toll was as high as 50.
The Taliban’s chief spokesperson, Zabihullah Mujahid, said a “large number” of worshippers were killed or wounded, and Taliban special forces had arrived at the scene and were investigating.
Dost Mohammad Obaida, the Taliban’s deputy police chief for Kunduz province, said Friday’s attack may have been carried out by a suicide bomber who had mingled with the worshippers inside the mosque.
“I assure our Shia brothers that the Taliban are prepared to ensure their safety,” Obaida said.
The atrocity has underlined both the fragility of the security situation under the Taliban’s new regime, and the determination of ISKP to destabilise the hardline Islamist organisation on its own ground as it transitions from an insurgent movement to consolidating its rule.
While the Taliban has pursued ISKP, killing and arresting its members, it has also tried to minimise the threat posed by the group.
Bitter rivals of the Taliban, ISKP has repeatedly targeted Shias in an attempt to stir up sectarian violence in Sunni-majority Afghanistan.
Even before the US-led withdrawal, Islamic State saw the Taliban as a regional and ideological rival, with some observers warning that ISKP would launch a campaign of increasing violence aimed at destabilising the new regime.
One of the fiercest points of contention is over the Taliban’s ambitions to carve out an emirate within Afghanistan’s national borders, a goal sharply at odds with Islamic State’s vision of a transnational caliphate.
Eyewitness accounts from near the explosion described scenes of panic as people searched for relatives and ambulances ferried the dead and injured to several nearby hospitals.
A medical source at Kunduz provincial hospital said 35 dead and more than 55 wounded had been taken there, while a Médecins Sans Frontières trauma centre said 20 were dead and scores more wounded.
One female teacher in Kunduz described how the blast happened near her house, and several of her neighbours were killed.
“It was a very terrifying incident,” she told Agence France-Presse. “Many of our neighbours have been killed and wounded. A 16-year-old neighbour was killed. They couldn’t find half of his body. Another neighbour who was 24 was killed as well.”
Another video showed men shepherding people, including women and children, away from the scene. Frightened crowds thronged the streets.
Aminullah, an eyewitness whose brother was at the mosque, added: “After I heard the explosion, I called my brother but he did not pick up.
“I walked towards the mosque and found my brother wounded and faint. We immediately took him to the MSF hospital.”
Another local resident, Hussaindad Rezayee, said he rushed to the mosque as soon as the explosion went off. “I was busy at home doing construction work and when the prayers started the explosion happened,” he said. “I came to look for my relatives, the mosque was full.”
The Kunduz bombing follows other recent attacks attributed to ISKP.
On Sunday the group targeted a funeral prayer service attended by a number of senior Taliban leaders in Kabul, and there have been other smaller attacks in the eastern provinces of Nangarhar and Kunar.
It marks a worrying escalation for Afghanistan’s Shia minority who have long been targets of sectarian violence, including by the Taliban.
Ethnic Hazaras, who are mostly Shias, make up about 6% of Kunduz province’s population of nearly 1 million people. The province also has a large ethnic Uzbek population that has been targeted for recruitment by IS, which is closely aligned with the militant Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan.