Attack on cultural centre in Afghan capital kills dozens

Attackers stormed a Shia Muslim cultural centre in the Afghan capital, setting off multiple bombs and killing at least 41 people, an official says.

Afghan President Ashraf Ghani called the attack a 'crime against humanity'

A distraught man is cared for outside a hospital following a suicide attack in Kabul on Thursday. (Rahmat Gul/Associated Press)

Suicide bombers stormed a Shia cultural centre and news agency on Thursday in the Afghan capital on Thursday, killing dozens of people and wounding scores, many of them students attending a conference.

ISIS said in an online statement that it was responsible for the attack, the latest in a series the movement has claimed on Shia targets in Kabul, saying the centre received support from Iran

Waheed Majrooh, a spokesperson for the Ministry of Public Health, said 41 people, including four women and two children, had been killed and 84 wounded. Most had serious burns.

The attack occurred during a morning panel discussion on the anniversary of the Soviet invasion of Sunni-majority Afghanistan at the Tabian Social and Cultural Centre, witnesses said.

The floor of the centre, at the basement level, was covered in blood as wailing survivors and relatives picked through the debris, while windows of the news agency, on the second floor, were all shattered.

An Afghan woman mourns at the site of the suicide attack. (Omar Sobhani/Reuters)

"We were shocked and didn't feel the explosion at first, but we saw smoke coming up from below," said Ali Reza Ahmadi, a journalist at the agency who was sitting in his office above the centre when the attack took place. 

"Survivors were coming out. I saw one boy with cuts to his feet and others with burns all over their faces," he said. "About 10 minutes after the first explosion, there was another one outside on the street and then another one." 

Video journalist Rateb Noori was also in his office and said he rushed to the scene, where he witnessed one of the blasts and people trying to flee the area.

"There was a woman and a man, and the man was trying to kind of help the woman to come out of that place.... She was quite scared and panicked, of course," he told CBC Radio's As It Happens on Thursday.

When the dust cleared, he turned his camera back to where the couple were, but they were gone.

"I couldn't see those people anymore," he said. "The explosion exactly happened in front of them."

'Unpardonable crime against humanity'

Deputy Health Minister Feda Mohammad Paikan said 35 bodies had been brought into the nearby Istiqlal hospital. Television pictures showed many of the injured suffered serious burns.

"There was a reading and an academic discussion, and then there was a huge bang," said Sayed Jan, a participant in the conference, from his bed in the hospital. 

"I felt my face burning and I fell down and saw other colleagues lying around me and smoke everywhere."

The bloodshed followed an attack on a private television station in Kabul last month that was also claimed by the local affiliate of the Islamic State. 

An Afghan security officer inspects bullet holes at the site of the attack. (Omar Sobhani/Reuters)

Afghan President Ashraf Ghani's spokesperson issued a statement calling the attack an "unpardonable crime against humanity" and pledging to destroy terrorist groups. 

Taliban spokesperson Zabihullah Mujahid issued a statement on Twitter denying involvement in the attack, which was also condemned by Afghanistan's international partners including NATO and the United Nations. 

"I have little doubt that this attack deliberately targeted civilians," said Toby Lanzer, acting head of the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan. 

"Today in Kabul we have witnessed another truly despicable crime in a year already marked by unspeakable atrocities."

Fortified zone

Prior to Thursday's attack, there had been at least 12 attacks on Shia targets since the start of 2016, in which almost 700 people were killed or wounded, according to UN figures. Before that, there had only been one major attack, in 2011.

Backed by the heaviest U.S. airstrikes since the height of the international combat mission in Afghanistan, Afghan forces have forced the Taliban back in many areas and prevented any major urban centre from falling into the hands of insurgents.

But high-profile attacks in the big cities have continued as militants have looked for other ways to make an impact and 
undermine confidence in security.

Security personnel arrive outside the site of the attack on a Shia Muslim cultural centre. (Rahmat Gul/Associated Press)

The attacks have increased pressure on Ghani's Western-backed government to improve security. Much of the centre of Kabul is already a fortified zone of concrete blast walls and police checkpoints, following repeated attacks on the diplomatic quarter of the city.

But militant groups have also hit numerous targets outside the protected zone, many in the western part of the city, home to many members of the mainly Shia Hazara community. 

ISIS, which is opposed to both the Taliban and the Western-backed government, has claimed a growing share of such attacks.

"This gruesome attack underscores the dangers faced by Afghan civilians," rights group Amnesty International said in a statement from its South Asia director, Biraj Patnaik. "In one of the deadliest years on record, journalists and other civilians continue to be ruthlessly targeted by armed groups."

According to a report this month by media freedom group Reporters without Borders, Afghanistan is among the world's most dangerous countries for media workers with two journalists and five media assistants killed doing their jobs in 2017, before Thursday's attack.

According to Sayed Abbas Hussaini, a journalist at Afghan Voice, one reporter at the agency was killed in Thursday's attack and two were wounded.