At least 63 people have been killed and scores wounded in an explosion targeting a wedding in the Afghan capital, according to officials, in the deadliest attack in Kabul this year.
The suicide blast took place on Saturday night in the men’s reception area of the Dubai City wedding hall in western Kabul in a minority Shia neighbourhood packed with people celebrating a marriage.
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Women and children were among the casualties, said Nasrat Rahimi, a spokesman for the interior ministry.
The Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL or ISIS) group claimed responsibility for the attack on Sunday.
The blast comes as the Taliban and the United States are trying to negotiate an agreement on the withdrawal of US forces in exchange for a Taliban commitment on security and peace talks with Afghanistan’s US-backed government.
The Taliban denied any involvement, calling Saturday’s blast “forbidden and unjustifiable”, but Afghan President Ashraf Ghani said that the group “cannot absolve themselves of blame, for they provide [a] platform for terrorists”.
In a series of tweets on Sunday, Ghani strongly condemned the “inhumane attack” and called for an “extraordinary security meeting to review and prevent such security lapses”.
I strongly condemn the inhumane attack on the wedding hall in Kabul last night. My top priority for now is to reach out to the families of victims of this barbaric attack. On behalf of the nation I send my heartfelt condolences to the families of those who were martyred.
— Ashraf Ghani (@ashrafghani) August 18, 2019
‘Scene was awful’
The blast occurred near the stage where musicians were and “all the youths, children and all the people who were there were killed,” witness Gul Mohammad told The Associated Press news agency.
The groom, Mirwais Elmi, recalled greeting smiling guests in the afternoon, before seeing their bodies being carried out hours later.
The attack “changed my happiness to sorrow”, the young man told local TV station Tolo News.
“My family, my bride are in shock, they cannot even speak. My bride keeps fainting,” he said. “I lost my brother, I lost my friends, I lost my relatives. I will never see happiness in my life again.”
In the aftermath of the attack, images from inside the hall showed blood-stained bodies on the ground along with pieces of flesh and torn clothes, hats, sandals and bottles of mineral water.
One witness, Sahi, said he was at the back of the wedding hall when the explosion happened.
“It was very big,” he told Al Jazeera. “I fell down where I was. When I stood up I saw tables and people were scattered everywhere. The scene was awful. My brother was injured. Most of my friends were killed.”
Al Jazeera’s Charlotte Bellis, reporting from an emergency hospital in central Kabul, where many of the injured were being treated, said: “Dozens of people are waiting for any news of loved ones.”
“People have been ferried here all night, the wounded and also the dead, people caught up in this explosion,” she added.
Sunni Muslim armed groups, including the Taliban and ISIL, have repeatedly attacked the Shia Hazara minorities in Afghanistan and neighbouring Pakistan over the years.
Fighters have periodically struck Afghan weddings, which are seen as easy targets because they frequently lack rigorous security precautions.
On July 12, at least six people were killed when a suicide bomber attacked a wedding ceremony in the eastern Afghan province of Nangarhar. ISIL, which has a growing footprint in the region, claimed responsibility for the blast.
At least 40 people were killed in an explosion at a wedding hall in Kabul in November 2018.
The latest attack shattered more than a week of relative calm in the Afghan capital.
On August 7, a Taliban car bomb aimed at Afghan security forces detonated on the same road, killing 14 people and wounding 145 – most of them women, children and other civilians.
‘Pushing for peace’
Messages of shock poured in on Sunday. “Such acts are beyond condemnation,” the European Union mission to Afghanistan said.
“This heinous and inhumane attack is indeed a crime against humanity,” Afghanistan’s Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah said.
The violence comes against the backdrop of talks between the US and the Taliban, which have been holding regular meetings in Qatar since October to try to end the 18-year conflict.
Expectations are rising for a deal in which the US would start withdrawing its approximately 14,000 soldiers from Afghanistan after a war that has turned into a stalemate.
In return, the Taliban would guarantee Afghanistan would not be a sanctuary for violent groups to expand and plot new attacks, both sides have said.
The Taliban is also expected to make a commitment to open power-sharing talks with the US-backed government and agree to a ceasefire.
Omar Zakhilwal, a former adviser to President Ghani who was also the President’s Special Representative and Afghan ambassador to Pakistan, said a peace deal with the Taliban would remove an environment which makes it easy to carry out “terrorist activities”.
“Whenever peace talks heat up, such attacks increase,” he told Al Jazeera from the Afghan capital.
“This should not deter those talks,” Zakhilwal added. “If anything, they should strengthen the resolve for pushing forward with the peace talks.”