80 Dead As ISIS Claims Twin Blasts During Kabul Protest

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KABUL, Afghanistan — At least 80 people were killed and more than 230 wounded Saturday when attackers detonated explosives amid a huge crowd of peaceful protesters in the Afghan capital, most of them from the country’s Shiite ethnic Hazara minority, Afghan officials said.

Spokesmen for the Islamic State quickly claimed responsibility for the attack at a traffic circle jammed with demonstrators, according to Afghan media. The group’s media office said two ISIS fighters detonated suicide belts among the crowd, in two separate bombings.

The death toll was the highest of any terror attack in the capital after more than a decade of fighting between Taliban militants and Afghan and NATO forces. If indeed carried out by the Islamic State, known as DAESH in Afghanistan, it would be the first major urban attack in Afghanistan by the radical Sunni Muslim terrorist group and could signal its first deliberate effort to target the country’s Shiite minority, which it views as infidel.

Until now, the Middle Eastern-based group has been active mainly in eastern Afghanistan near the Pakistan border. The domestic Taliban insurgency has carried out numerous bombings and other attacks in the capital over the past several years .

Until Saturday’s blast, the deadliest single attack in Kabul had been in December, 2011, when about 70 people were killed in a suicide bombing near a mosque where Shiite mourners were observing Ashura, a day that marks killing of the Prophet Mohammed’s grandson Hussain and his followers in 680 A.D. Bombings took place in two other Afghan cities that day.

On Saturday, the Taliban denied it had any connection with the latest attack. A spokesman for the group, which is also Sunni Muslim, called the bombing “an ominous plot aimed at creating discord among the nation.” During the late 1990s, when the Taliban regime held power in Kabul and most of the country, it banned Shiite religious holidays in public.

Saturday’s bombing took place at a busy traffic circle in West Kabul near a police building, the Kabul zoo, the national university and the national parliament. Hazara protesters had marched and gathered there in the lastest of several large peaceful protests demanding that the government build a large power project to bring electricity to Bamiyan Province, a Hazara-majority region in north-central Afghanistan.

Officials of the rights group Amnesty International said the “horrific attack” was a reminder that the conflict in Afghanistan” is not winding down, as some believe, but escalating, with consequences for the human rights situation in the country that should alarm us all.”

The Hazara demonstration, which followed several others in May, had been announced in advance and its route and location were well known. As in the previous protests, the government had blocked major routes from West Kabul to the presidential palace and downtown Kabul, using shipping containers as well as lines of police.

As a result of the road closures, officials said, it was difficult for victims to be transported to major hospitals, and smaller clinics and health facilities near the blast site were overwhelmed. Among the wounded was a protest leader and member of Parliament, Ahmed Behzad, witnesses said.

Despite the devastating attack, some protesters regrouped and gathered near the site later in the day, vowing to continue their protest until Afghan President Ashraf Ghani accepts their demands. In one area, angry demonstrators chanted slogans against the government and threw stones at security forces. Both Ghani and the government’s chief executive officer, Abdullah Abdullah, issued statements condemning the attack.

At least 61 people were killed and more than 200 wounded Saturday when attackers detonated explosives amid a huge crowd of peaceful protesters in the Afghan capital, most of them from the country’s Shiite ethnic Hazara minority, health and police officials said.

Spokesmen for the Islamic State quickly claimed responsibility for the attack at a traffic circle jammed with demonstrators, according to Afghan media. The group’s media office said two Islamic State fighters detonated suicide belts among the crowd.

If indeed carried out by the Islamic State, known as Daesh in Afghanistan, it would be the first major urban attack in that country by the radical Sunni Muslim terrorist group and could signal its first deliberate effort to target Afghanistan’s Shiite minority, which it views as infidel.

Hundreds of Hazaras have reportedly fought alongside President Bashar al-Assad’s troops in Syria against Sunni groups, including the Islamic State, in recent years, making Hazaras a likely target for the group’s loyalists back in Afghanistan.

Until now, the Middle Eastern-based Islamic State has been active mainly in eastern Afghanistan near the Pakistan border, while the domestic Taliban insurgency has carried out numerous bombings and other attacks in the capital.

Saturday’s bombing took place at a busy traffic circle near a police building, the Kabul zoo and the national parliament. Hazara protesters had marched and gathered there in the latest of several large peaceful protests demanding that the government undertake a large power project to bring electricity to Bamiyan province, a Hazara-majority region in north-central Afghanistan.

Officials of the rights group Amnesty International said the “horrific attack” was a reminder that the conflict in Afghanistan “is not winding down, as some believe, but escalating, with consequences for the human rights situation in the country that should alarm us all.”

(c) 2016, The Washington Post