An explosion occurred Friday at a mosque packed with Shia Muslim worshipers in northern Afghanistan, killing or wounding at least 100 people, a Taliban police official said.
There was no immediate claim of responsibility for the blast, which took place in Kunduz, the capital of Kunduz province, but militants from the Islamic State group have a long history of targeting Afghanistan’s Shiite minority.
Dost Mohammad Obaida, the deputy chief of police for Kunduz province, said “most of them have been killed,” referring to the victims. He said the attack may have been carried out by a suicide bomber who had mixed with worshipers inside the mosque.
“I assure our Shiite brothers that the Taliban are prepared to ensure their safety,” Obaida said, adding that an investigation was underway.
If confirmed, a death toll of dozens would be the highest since US and NATO forces left Afghanistan in late August and the Taliban took control of the country. The Taliban have been the target of a series of deadly attacks by rival Islamic State militants, including ambush shots and an explosion at a mosque in the capital Kabul.
The Kunduz explosion broke out during Friday’s weekly prayer service at the Gozar-e-Sayed Abad mosque. The Friday noon prayer is the highlight of the Muslim religious week, and the mosques are often crowded. Witness Ali Reza said he was praying at the time of the blast and reported seeing many victims.
Photos and video from the scene showed rescuers carrying a body wrapped in a blanket from the mosque to an ambulance. The stairs at the entrance to the mosque were covered in blood. Debris from the blast covered the floor and the high ceiling of the mosque was charred.
An area resident, Hussaindad Rezayee, said he ran to the mosque as soon as the blast broke out. “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.”
Earlier Friday, the Taliban’s chief spokesman, Zabihullah Mujahid, said the target was the Shiite mosque and that a “large number” of worshipers were killed and injured. He said that Taliban special forces had arrived at the scene and were investigating the incident.
The Taliban leadership has been grappling with a growing threat from the local Islamic State affiliate, known as Islamic State in Khorasan. ISIS militants have stepped up attacks to target rivals, including two recent deadly bombings in Kabul.
IS has also declared war on Afghanistan’s Shiite minority and has claimed responsibility for some of the worst attacks on the community, including attacks on its mosques in Kabul and the western province of Herat.
The United Nations mission in Afghanistan condemned Friday’s attack, saying it was “part of a disturbing pattern of violence” against religious institutions.
Previously, ISIS had denounced a bomb attack on Sunday in front of Kabul’s Eid Gah Mosque that killed at least five civilians. Another attack on a madrasah, a religious school, in Khost province on Wednesday went unreported.
The local Islamic State affiliate also claimed responsibility for the horrific August 26 attack that killed at least 169 Afghans and 13 US servicemen outside the Kabul airport in the final days of the chaotic US withdrawal from Afghanistan.
Since the US withdrawal, IS attacks have occurred mainly in eastern Afghanistan _ the IS affiliate’s regional base _ and in Kabul.
In the northern province of Kunduz, the ethnic Hazaras, who are mostly Shiites, make up about 6% of the province’s population of nearly 1 million people. The province also has a large ethnic Uzbek population that has been recruited by ISIS, which is closely aligned with the militant Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan.
Friday’s attack, if claimed by ISIS, will also be concerning to the north central Asian neighbors of Afghanistan and Russia, which has been courting the Taliban for years as an ally against progressive IS in the region.