KABUL: The suicide bomber stood in the middle of the dancing, clapping crowd as hundreds of Afghan children and adults celebrated a wedding in a joyous release from Kabul’s strain of war. Then, in a flash, he detonated his explosives-filled vest, killing dozens — and Afghanistan grieved again.
The local Daesh affiliate claimed responsibility for the deadliest attack in the capital this year, with 63 killed and 182 wounded, while outraged Afghans questioned just how safe they will be under an approaching deal between the United States and the Taliban to end America’s longest war.
The Taliban condemned the attack but Afghan President Ashraf Ghani said they shared responsibility. “The Taliban cannot absolve themselves of blame, for they provide a platform for terrorists,” he said.
Ghani said the attack was “barbaric,” and Afghanistan’s chief executive Abdullah Abdullah described it as a “crime against humanity.”
Saudi Arabia offered its condolences to the victims’ families and the government and people of Afghanistan, wishing the injured a speedy recovery.. “We condemn and denounce the suicide bombing,” the Ministry of Foreign Affairs said.
“We renew the Kingdom’s firm position against targeting and terrorizing innocent people, and all manifestations of terrorism and violence.”
The explosion came just ahead of Afghanistan’s 100th Independence Day on Monday. The city, long familiar with checkpoints and razor wire, has been under heavier security. It was not immediately clear if planned events in Kabul would go ahead.
The attack came as the Taliban and the US try to negotiate an agreement on the withdrawal of US forces in exchange for a Taliban commitment on security and peace talks with the Afghan government. So far the Taliban have refused to talk to the government.
The US special envoy for Afghanistan, Zalmay Khalilzad, said the attack showed the need to accelerate efforts to reach a deal with the Taliban, to help defeat Daesh.
But there are concerns among Afghan officials and US national security aides that Afghanistan could be plunged into a new civil war that could bring a return of Taliban rule and a refuge for extremists such as Daesh.
While the US wants Taliban assurances that Afghanistan will no longer be used as a launch pad for global terror attacks, there appear to be no guarantees of protection for Afghan civilians.
The Taliban, which the US hopes will help curb the Daesh affiliate’s rise, condemned Saturday’s attack as “forbidden and unjustifiable.”
The blast took place in a western Kabul neighborhood that is home to many in the country’s minority Shiite Hazara community. Daesh, which declared war on Afghanistan’s Shiites nearly two years ago and has claimed responsibility for many attacks targeting them in the past, said in a statement that a Pakistani Daesh fighter seeking martyrdom targeted a large Shiite gathering.
The wedding, at which more than 1,200 people had been invited, was in fact a mixed crowd of Shiites and Sunnis, said the event hall’s owner, Hussain Ali.
Ali’s workers were still finding body parts, including hands, in the shattered wedding hall, its floor strewn with broken glass, pieces of furniture and victims’ shoes.
“We have informed the police to come and collect them,” he said.
The bomber detonated his explosives near the stage where musicians were playing and “all the youths, children and all the people who were there were killed,” said Gul Mohammad, another witness.
Survivors described a panicked scene in the suddenly darkened hall as people screamed and scrambled to find loved ones.
“I was with the groom in the other room when we heard the blast and then I couldn’t find anyone,” said Ahmad Omid, who said the groom was his father’s cousin. “Everyone was lying all around the hall.”
Buried with bare hands
Many of the dead and wounded were women and children attending the wedding. Bodies were strewn amid overturned tables and chairs, with dark bloodstains on the wedding hall carpet.Both the bride and groom survived the attack, but newlywed Mirwais Elmi was distraught. “I won’t ever be able to forget this, however much I try,” he said.
“My family, my bride, are in shock, they cannot even speak. My bride keeps fainting. I lost my brother, I lost my friends, I lost my relatives. I will never see happiness in my life again.”
The bride’s father said 14 members of his family had been killed.
“People were dancing and celebrating the party when the blast happened,” said wedding guest Munir Ahmad, 23, who was seriously injured. “After the explosion there was total chaos. Everyone was screaming and crying for their loved ones.”
Stunned families buried the dead, some digging with their bare hands. One wounded survivor, Mohammad Aslim, still wore his bloodied clothes the day after the blast late Saturday. He and his friends had already buried 16 bodies, among them several close relatives, including a 7-year-old boy.
Aslim looked exhausted, and said he was waiting to bury more. Nearby a man named Amanullah, who lost his 14-year-old son, said in anguish that the explosion had mangled the boy’s face so badly he could no longer recognize it.
“I wish I could find the pieces of my son’s body and put them as one piece into the grave,” he cried.
The blast at the wedding hall, known as Dubai City, shattered a period of relative calm in Kabul.
On Aug. 7, a Taliban car bomber aimed at Afghan security forces detonated his explosives on the same road, a short drive from the hall, killing 14 people and wounding 145 — most of them women, children and other civilians.
Kabul’s huge, brightly lit wedding halls are centers of community life in a city weary of decades of war, with thousands of dollars often spent on a single evening.
Messages of shock poured in on Sunday. “Such acts are beyond condemnation,” the European Union mission to Afghanistan said. “An act of extreme depravity,” US Ambassador John Bass said. A deliberate attack on civilians “can only be described as a cowardly act of terror,” UN envoy to Afghanistan Tadamichi Yamamoto said.