Gunmen have killed at least 14 people in a Shia shrine in Kabul, compounding fears that militants are trying to stoke ethnic tensions in the escalating conflict.
The attack took place on the eve of Ashura, one of of the holiest days of the year for Shia Muslims, who constitute a sizeable minority in the country.
As hundreds of worshipers gathered in Kabul’s large Sakhi shrine on Tuesday evening, assailants in police uniforms stormed the complex, according to witnesses who also heard explosions.
A ministry of interior spokesman told Associated Press that 13 civilians and one policeman had been killed. Over 40 were wounded, said the ministry of public health, including at least 15 women. After more than two hours, elite forces killed the last attacker.
“There were women, children and young men praying inside the shrine,” said Shari, 48, a pilgrim.
The area outside the shrine houses a large cemetery and is a favoured picnic spot for Kabul families but is also open landscape with limited security.
Farad Alamdar, who had come to the shrine several days in a row, said: “In previous days, there was a lot of security. I don’t know why there was not much security today. They didn’t even check cars. I talked about that with my cousins over dinner, that attackers could come from everywhere.”
On Ashura, Shias commemorate the death in 680 AD of Imam Hussein, the grandson of the prophet Muhammad, who they regard as a rightful heir to the prophet.
Tuesday’s attack marks the second time in months that Kabul’s Shia community has been targeted. In July, by members of the Hazara ethnic minority in an attack that was claimed by Islamic State.
In another attack during Ashura in 2011, a suicide bomber outside another shrine in central Kabul.
Despite these deadly attacks, Afghanistan has largely been spared sectarian violence since 2001.
Tuesday’s attack could be an attempt to stoke ethnic tensions in a country that since the fall of the Taliban 2001 has experienced growing religious freedom and tolerance.
A member of the Afghan intelligence services told the Guardian that security forces feared more attacks were planned against mosques and crowds during the Ashura commemorations.