Sunday 25 February 2018

Death toll in suicide attack on Kabul peaceful demonstration rises to 80

Thousands of demonstrators took part in the march in Kabul (AP)
Thousands of demonstrators took part in the march in Kabul (AP)

Afghanistan's interior ministry has said the death toll in a suicide attack on a peaceful demonstration in Kabul has climbed to 80.

The ministry said in a statement that at least 231 people were wounded.

A suicide bomber struck a protest march in Kabul by members of Afghanistan's ethnic Hazara community, who are predominantly Shiite Muslims. Most of the population is Sunni.

President Ashraf Ghani, who has condemned the blast, declared Sunday a day of national mourning.

In a live television address, he said: "I promise you I will take revenge against the culprits."

"I have ordered the attorney general to set up a commission to investigate this incident."

The Islamic State group claimed responsibility for the attack via its Aamaq news agency. If the claim proves true, it will be the first by the extremists in the Afghan capital, and one of the deadliest in Afghanistan since the Taliban launched their insurgency in 2001.

A spokesman for Mr Ghani told The Associated Press that march organisers had been warned of the possibility of an attack

A statement reported by the IS-Linked Aamaq online news agency said two IS militants detonated their explosive vests amid the crowds of minority ethnic Hazara demonstrators.

Hazaras are predominantly Shiite Muslims, and IS views all Shiites as apostates. Shortly before the IS statement, the Taliban's spokesman denied any Taliban involvement in the blast.

The marchers were demanding that a major regional electric power line be routed through their impoverished home province. Most Hazaras are Shiite Muslims but most Afghans are Sunni.

Eyewitness Ramin Anwari described seeing up to eight bodies in the Demazang area, where protesters were preparing to set up a camp after a four-hour march.

One march organiser, Laila Mohammadi, said she arrived at the scene soon after the blast and saw "many dead and wounded people."

Footage on Afghan television and photographs posted on social media showed a scene of carnage, with numerous bodies and body parts spread across the square.

Angry demonstrators sealed some of the area around the square, and prevented police and other security forces from entering. Some threw stones at security forces.

"Peaceful demonstrations are the right of every citizen of Afghanistan and the government will do everything it can to provide them with security," said Mr Ghani.

Amnesty International issue a statement saying the "horrific attack" on the Hazara demonstration "demonstrates the utter disregard that armed groups have for human life."

"Such attacks are a reminder that the conflict in Afghanistan is not winding down, as some believe, but escalating, with consequences for the human rights situation in the country that should alarm us all," it quoted Champa Patel, Amnesty's South Asia director, as saying.

Violence had been feared at what was the second demonstration by Hazaras over the power line issue. The last one in May attracted tens of thousands of people, also shutting down the central business district.

The May march was attended by Hazara political leaders, who were notable by their absence on Saturday.

At the height of the march, demonstrators chanted slogans against President Ashraf Ghani and chief executive Abdullah Abdullah, shouted "death to discrimination" and "all Afghans are equal."

The so-called TUTAP line is backed by the Asian Development Bank with involvement of Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Afghanistan and Pakistan.

The original plan routed the line through Bamiyan province, in the central highlands, where most of the country's Hazaras live.

That route was changed in 2013 by the previous Afghan government.

Leaders of the marches have said that the rerouting was evidence of bias against the Hazara community, which accounts for up to 15% of Afghanistan's estimated 30 million people.

They are considered the poorest of the country's ethnic groups, and often complain of discrimination. Bamiyan is poverty stricken, though it is largely peaceful and has potential as a tourist destination.

Afghanistan is desperately short of power, with less than 40% of the population connected to the national grid, according to the World Bank. Almost 75% of electricity is imported.

The spokesman for Mr Ghani said the central government shared intelligence with the organisers of a protest march in Kabul that was bombed, warning that the marchers faced a possible "terrorist attack."

Mr Chakhansuri revealed government officials warned the march organisers that they risked attack, saying: "We knew that terrorists wanted to bring sectarianism to Kabul, and cause splits within our community."

The commander of US and Nato armed forces in Afghanistan, US Army General John Nicholson, condemned the bomb attack.

"Our condolences go out to those who are affected by today's attack," General Nicholson said.

"We strongly condemn the actions of Afghanistan's enemies of peace and remain firmly committed to supporting our Afghan partners and the National Unity Government."

The United States has 9,800 troops in Afghanistan working with Afghan forces against the Taliban, Islamic State and other insurgent groups.

Press Association

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