KABUL: Grieving worshippers Wednesday described desperately trying to shelter their children against a hail of gunfire in Kabul that killed at least 18 people gathering to mark Ashura, one of the most important festivals of the Shia calendar.
According to witnesses, gunmen entered the Karte Sakhi shrine near Kabul University late Tuesday, firing "indiscriminately" on men, women and children as they tried to flee. The UN in Afghanistan called the attack an "atrocity" and put the toll at 18 on Wednesday.
But the interior ministry later said in a statement that 16 people including three women and two children were killed and 54 wounded in two separate attacks in Kabul Tuesday night. The statement said the shrine was attacked by an armed suicide bomber wearing a military uniform and apparently acting alone, who started spraying bullets at worshippers.
At the same time, another attacker entered a nearby mosque and took an unspecified number of people hostage as they were commemorating Ashura. Both attackers were killed by Afghan security forces and the hostages were released, the statement said, without clarifying if any casualties were sustained in the second assault.
14 killed as gunmen target Shias marking Ashura in Kabul
In a Kabul hospital on Wednesday, victims wounded in the attack on the shrine said more than one gunman was involved in the attack. One mother who gave her name as Saleha told AFP of a gunman who was "killing everyone". She was shot in the leg as she tried to protect her child. "While I was hugging my little son I begged him not to kill my child," she said.
The child survived, but she angrily denounced the Afghan government for failing to protect them. "The families of the president, CEO Dr Abdullah and other rich ones live abroad. Here, only poor people are killed every day."
Another witness, Ali Hussain, said attackers wearing military uniforms first shot the police guard at the gate and then entered the shrine, where dozens of worshippers had gathered. "They indiscriminately shot everyone they faced. They wouldn't even spare women and children," said Hussain, who fled through a library back door.
The UN released a statement saying: "This attack deliberately targeting a large group of civilians exercising their right to freely manifest their religion in worship, observance and practice is an atrocity." The Taliban said they were not involved and no group has yet officially claimed responsibility for what President Ashraf Ghani condemned as a "clear sign of a crime against humanity".
The threat of attack targeting Shias was considered particularly serious during Ashura, and many foreign embassies in Kabul had restricted their staff's movements until the end of the week. Ashura, marked Wednesday, commemorates the death of Imam Hussain (RA), grandson of the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH), who was assassinated in 680 and whose tragic end laid the foundation for the faith practised by the Shia community.
The last attack on Afghanistan's Shia minority, on July 23 in Kabul, killed 84 people and left 130 injured. It was claimed by the Islamic State organisation. In 2011, about 80 people were killed and more than 100 were wounded when a suicide bomber struck a gathering of Shias during Ashura in the heart of Kabul.
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