Afghan suicide bombs kills at least 60 Shias

A suicide bomb aimed at Afghan Shias marking a holy day leaves at least 56 people dead in Kabul, with four more killed in a second bombing elsewhere in the country.

Scores more injured, including children, in attacks on worshippers

An Afghan woman mourns after a bomb attack at a Shia Muslim gathering in Kabul Tuesday. (Omar Sobhani/Reuters )

A suicide bomb aimed at Afghan Shias marking a holy day has left at least 56 people dead in Kabul on Tuesday, with more killed in a second bombing elsewhere in the country.

Scores of people, including children, were injured, reports said.

The first explosion occurred at midday outside Abul Fazl shrine in the centre of Kabul, ripping through throngs of worshippers. 

The second bomb was strapped to a bicycle when it went off in the northern city of Mazar-e-Sharif. The blast killed four people.

The bicycle bomb went off almost at the same time as the one in Kabul, as a convoy of Afghan Shias drove down a road in another part of the country, shouting in celebration of the Shia Muslim holiday of Ashoura. The holiday marks the death of Imam Hussein, the grandson of the Prophet Muhammad.

Religiously motivated attacks on Shias are rare in Afghanistan, although they are common in neighbouring Pakistan. No group claimed responsibility for Tuesday's blasts, reminiscent of the wave of sectarian attacks that shook Iraq during the height of the war.

Afghan National Army soldier disperses the crowd after a suicide attack at a Shia Muslim gathering in Kabul Tuesday. (Omar Sobhani/Reuters )
Afghan President Hamid Karzai, speaking at a news conference after meeting German Chancellor Angela Merkel in Berlin, said Tuesday's attack was unprecedented in scope. He said it was "the first time that on such an important religious day in Afghanistan terrorism of that horrible nature is taking place."

Mohammad Bakir Shaikzada, the top Shia cleric in Kabul, said he could not remember a similar attack having taken place on such a scale.

"This is a crime against Muslims during the holy day of Ashoura," he said, declining to place blame. "We Muslims will never forget these attacks. It is the enemy of the Muslims who are carrying them out."

Survivors weep in streets

The last incident of violence between Shias and Sunnis following the U.S. invasion 10 years ago occurred in early 2006, during Ashoura commemorations in the western city of Herat. During those riots, blamed on Islamic extremists, five people were killed and more than 50 injured.

Mahood Khan, who is in charge of the Abul Fazl shrine, said the explosion occurred just outside a courtyard where dozens of worshippers were lined up as they filed in and out of the packed building.

A few minutes after the blast, bodies could be seen loaded into the trunks of cars while wounded were led away by friends and relatives. Survivors wept in the streets.

"It was a very powerful blast," Khan said. "The food was everywhere. It was out of control. Everyone was crying, shouting. It is a disaster."

Mustafa, a shopkeeper, said he and his mother were delivering food to the worshippers when the blast occurred. Two groups of 150 to 200 people from Kabul had just prayed at the shrine and left.

'Smoke and red blood on the floor'

Another group of more than 100 from Logar province was entering when the explosion occurred. He said the suicide bomber was at the end of the line of worshippers from Logar when he blew himself up near one of the gates to the shrine.

"It was very loud. My ears went deaf and I was blown three metres," said Mustafa, who uses only one name. "There was smoke and red blood on the floor of the shrine. There were people lying everywhere."

The shrine's loudspeaker continued to blast a recitation of the Qur'an as ambulances carried bodies and wounded away. Women stood outside the shrine wailing and holding crying children.

The mosque had been packed with worshippers and a large crowd that could not fit inside was gathered outside the building. The bomber walked into this crowd and detonated his explosives, said witness Mohammad Sharif.

The shrine is close to the palace where Karzai lives. He is in Europe to attend an international conference on Afghanistan.

It is named after Abul Fazl, who was an adviser to a 14th-century Mogul emperor. The shrine and its blue minaret is one of Kabul's better-known landmarks. It is located in Murad Khane area near the Kabul river, a district that has been listed by the World Monuments Fund as one of its 100 most endangered sites of cultural heritage.

With files from The Associated Press