Afghanistan mosque attack kills scores of worshippers

UN chief says those responsible be held accountable after at least 62 killed in deadly attack in Nangarhar province.

    At least 62 worshippers have been killed and dozens injured after multiple explosions rocked a mosque in Afghanistan's Nangarhar province during Friday prayers, according to officials, a day after the United Nations said violence in the country had reached "unacceptable" levels.

    The attack in Haska Mena district also wounded at least 33 people, the provincial governor's spokesman Attaullah Khogyani told AFP news agency. However, another senior official in the province told Reuters that more than 100 people were wounded in the year's second-deadliest attack and the toll could rise.

    The blast was carried out with "explosives that were placed inside the mosque", Khogyani said, though other sources - including the Taliban - said the building may have been hit by a mortar.

    Zahir Adil, a spokesman for the public health department in Nangarhar province, said 23 of the wounded were transferred to Jalalabad, the provincial capital, and the rest were being treated in a Haska Mena clinic.

    Witnesses said the roof of the mosque had fallen through after the "loud" explosion. Some 350 worshippers were inside at the time, local resident Omar Ghorzang told AFP.

    Malik Mohammadi Gul Shinwari, a tribal elder from the area, said that the mosque had been destroyed.

    "It was a heartbreaking scene I witnessed," Shinwari told Reuters.

    There was no immediate claim of responsibility for the blasts, which Sediq Sediqqi, spokesman for Afghan President Ashraf Ghani, strongly condemned.

    "The Afghan government strongly condemns today's suicide attack in a mosque in Nangarhar province," Sediqqi said in a post on Twitter. 

    "The Taliban and their partners [in] heinous crimes continue to target civilians in time of worship," he added.

    But Suhail Shaheen, a spokesman for the Taliban, denied responsibility. "All witnesses say it was a mortar attack by Kabul Adm. [Administration] forces," he said in a tweet.

    UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, through a spokesman, said children were among the injured.

    "Those responsible for this attack must be held accountable," the spokesman said.

    Amnesty International's deputy South Asia director, Omar Waraich, said the attack "demands the world's attention."

    "Flagrant violations of international humanitarian law such as deliberate targeting of civilians are not something anyone should get used to or learn to ignore," he said.

    The blasts came a day after the UN said violence in Afghanistan had reached "unacceptable" levels.

    Afghanistan
    A volunteer carries an injured youth to hospital, following a bomb blast in Haska Mina district of Nangarhar province on October 18, 2019 [Noorullah Shirzada/ AFP]

    The figures - 1,174 deaths and 3,139 wounded from July 1 until September 30 this year - represent a 42 percent increase over the same period last year. More than 40 percent of the casualties were women and children.

    The UN laid the blame mainly at the feet of "anti-government elements" such as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL or ISIS) armed group and the Taliban, which was removed from power during a US-led invasion in 2001, though it said it also documented an alarming rise in casualties caused by pro-government forces.

    Both ISIL and the Taliban are active in Nangarhar province, with Afghan security forces struggling to battle both groups after the United States and NATO officially concluded their combat mission in the country four years ago.

    Efforts to end Afghanistan's 18-year-war have been stepped up recently, with US peace envoy Zalmay Khalilzad visiting Pakistan earlier this month to meet the Taliban's top negotiator, Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar.

    US officials said Khalilzad was in the Pakistani capital, Islamabad, to follow up on talks he held in September in New York with Pakistani officials, including Prime Minister Imran Khan.

    They insisted Khalilzad was not in Pakistan to restart US-Taliban peace talks, however.

    The meeting was the first that Khalilzad has held with the Taliban since last month, when US President Donald Trump declared that the peace talks, which have largely been held in Qatar, were "dead".

    He blamed an uptick in violence by the Taliban - that included the killing of a US soldier - for the breakdown in negotiations.

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    SOURCE: Al Jazeera and news agencies