Dozens of young girls have been buried at a desolate hilltop cemetery in Kabul, a day after a secondary school was targeted in the bloodiest attack in Afghanistan in more than a year.
A series of blasts outside the school on Saturday during a peak holiday shopping period killed more than 50 people, mostly female students, and wounded more than 100 in Dasht-e-Barchi, a west Kabul suburb populated mostly by Hazara Shia.
The government blamed the Taliban for the carnage, but the armed group denied responsibility and issued a statement saying the country needed to “safeguard and look after educational centres and institutions”.
Interior Ministry spokesman Tareq Arian told reporters that a car bomb detonated in front of the Sayed Al-Shuhada girls school on Saturday, and when the students rushed out in panic, two more devices exploded.
Residents were shopping ahead of this week’s Eid al-Fitr holiday, which marks the end of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan.
On Sunday, relatives began burying the dead at a hilltop site known as the Martyrs Cemetery, where victims of attacks against the Hazara community are laid to rest.
Saturday’s blasts came as the United States military continues to pull out its last 2,500 troops 20 years after it militarily intervened in the South Asian nation.
Hazaras are Shia Muslims who have historically faced persecution in the country of 38 million.
Bodies in wooden coffins were lowered into graves one by one by mourners still in a state of shock and fear, an AFP news agency photographer said.
“I rushed to the scene [after the blasts] and found myself in the middle of bodies, their hands and heads cut off and bones smashed,” said Mohammad Taqi, a resident of Dasht-e-Barchi, whose two daughters were students at the school but had escaped the attack.
“All of them were girls. Their bodies piled on top of each other.”
Last week the school’s students had protested a lack of teachers and study materials, said Mirza Hussain, a university student from the area.
“But what they got [in return] was a massacre.”
Books and school bags belonging to the victims still lay scattered at the site of the attack.
Afghan officials, including President Ashraf Ghani, blamed the Taliban.
“This savage group does not have the power to confront security forces on the battlefield, and instead targets with brutality and barbarism public facilities and the girls’ school,” Ghani said in a statement after the blasts.
The Taliban denied involvement and insist they have not carried out attacks in Kabul since February last year when they signed a deal with Washington that paved the way for peace talks and withdrawal of the remaining US troops.
But the group has clashed daily with Afghan forces in the rugged countryside even as the US military reduces its presence.
The US was supposed to have pulled all forces out by May 1 as agreed with the Taliban last year, but Washington pushed back the date to September 11 – a move that angered the Taliban.
The group’s leader, Haibatullah Akhunzada, reiterated in a message released ahead of Eid that any delay in withdrawing the troops was a “violation” of that deal.
“If America again fails to live up to its commitments then the world must bear witness and hold America accountable for all the consequences,” Akhunzada warned in Sunday’s message.
He also said that the country should “safeguard and look after educational centres and institutions”.
The top US diplomat in Kabul, Ross Wilson, called Saturday’s blasts “abhorrent”.
“This unforgivable attack on children is an assault on Afghanistan’s future, which cannot stand,” Wilson tweeted.
The Dasht-e-Barchi neighbourhood has been a regular target of attacks by armed groups.
In May last year, a group of gunmen launched a brazen daylight raid on a hospital in the area that left 24 people dead, including 16 mothers of newborn babies.
On October 24, a suicide bomber blew himself up at a tuition centre in the same district, killing 18 people in an attack claimed by the ISIL (ISIS) armed group.