Afghan police said Friday they had arrested two suicide bombers planning to attack Shia Muslims in Kabul on the anniversary of the massacre of 80 worshippers on Ashura last year.
The heavily-fortified capital is under heightened security ahead of the anniversary, with all police leave cancelled.
“Two suicide bombers with four suicide vests were arrested by Afghan police forces in Surobi district” east of Kabul, the interior ministry’s criminal investigation chief Abdul Rahman Rahimi told AFP.
“They wanted to attack crowded parts of the Ashura procession in Kabul city, and they have confessed to their crimes.”
Rahimi said the two men were members of the Taliban group leading a bloody insurgency against the government of President Hamid Karzai, which is backed by around 100,000 NATO troops.
On Ashura last year, which fell on December 6, a suicide bomber detonated his explosives in the middle of a crowd of worshippers at the main Shia shrine in Kabul, killing 80, including women and children.
A powerful image of a girl dressed in green screaming in fear among the dead moments after the blast won AFP photographer Massoud Hossaini a US Pulitzer prize.
When the Sunni Taliban ruled in the 1990s before being ousted by a US-led invasion in 2001, minority Shias suffered brutal persecution, but sectarian violence has been rare in recent years.
Shias, who make up roughly 20 percent of the Afghan population, were effectively banned from marking Ashura in public under the Taliban.
Ashura marks the killing of Imam Hussein, the grandson of the prophet Mohammad, near Karbala by armies of the caliph Yazid in 680 AD.
During the 10-day Ashura ceremonies, which end on Saturday this year, Shias whip their bare backs as part of traditional mourning rituals.
“Around 16,000 Afghan police are on the highest state of alert for Ashura,” Kabul crime branch chief, General Mohammad Zahir, told AFP.
“We have cancelled all leave of Afghan police forces for Saturday – to ensure security for citizens.”
Security forces have intensified vehicle checks and are searching people coming into the capital ahead of Ashura to prevent any attacks, Zahir said.