KHOST - A suicide blast struck a Shiite mosque in eastern Afghanistan Friday as it was crowded with worshippers for weekly prayers, killing at least 20 people and wounding dozens in the latest attack on the minority.
Officials have said they fear the death toll could rise after the assault, the latest targeting civilians who have borne the brunt of the violence in Afghanistan’s long conflict.
"A suicide blast took place inside a Shiite mosque in the city of Gardez of Paktia province," General Raz Mohammad Mandozai, provincial police chief of Paktia near the Pakistan border, told AFP.
"We have 20 people killed and around 50 others were wounded. All the victims were worshippers as they were busy offering Friday prayers when they were killed."
Mandozai added that at least two attackers opened fire on the crowd before detonating explosives, and said there may have been more than one suicide blast.
Abdullah Hasrat, the Paktia governor’s spokesman, gave a slightly higher death toll of 22, warning that it could rise.
The head of Gardez’s public health department Wilayat Khan Ahmadzai said that more than 70 people had been killed and wounded, with many rushed to the city’s civilian hospital.
There was no immediate claim of responsibility for the attack.
It comes as urban areas across Afghanistan have been rocked by an increasing number of attacks in recent months, with both Islamic State (IS) and Taliban insurgents targeting security forces and government installations.
The Taliban has not claimed a major attack in a city for weeks as it comes under increased pressure to agree to peace talks with the Afghan government.
But IS has carried out multiple attacks in the eastern city of Jalalabad and the capital Kabul in recent months, targeting everything from government ministries to a midwife training centre.
Last month an IS suicide bomber blew himself up near Kabul international airport, killing 23 people including AFP driver Mohammad Akhtar.
The uptick in violence comes as US and Afghan forces intensify ground and air offensives against IS, and the Taliban step up their turf war with the group.
Earlier this week more than 150 IS fighters surrendered in northern Afghanistan -- in a move that Afghan security forces and the Taliban hailed as the end of the extremist group in the north of the country.
Afghan civilians have taken the brunt of the gruesome war that began after the 2001 US-led invasion uprooted the Taliban regime.
Insurgent attacks and suicide bombs were the leading causes of civilian deaths in the first half of 2018, a recent UN report showed.
The total number of civilians killed was 1,692, the highest number for the period since the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan began keeping records in 2009.
Another 3,430 people were wounded, the report added. - APP/AFP