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 Shiite calendar.
Witnesses said 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, which was claimed by ISIL, an “atrocity” and put the toll at 18 on Wednesday.
But the interior ministry later said 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.
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 Hussein, said attackers “indiscriminately shot everyone they faced. They wouldn’t even spare women and children”.
‘Crime against humanity’
On Wednesday the ISIL group’s affiliate in Afghanistan and Pakistan claimed the attack, which President Ashraf Ghani condemned as a “clear sign of a crime against humanity”.
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.”
Until recent months the group had been confined to its stronghold in eastern Nangarhar, but in July it claimed twin bombings that tore through minority Shiite Hazara protesters in Kabul, killing 84 people in the deadliest attack in the capital since 2001.
Its leader Hafiz Saeed was killed in a US airstrike in Nangarhar that same month, and officials have denied the July attack marked a turning point for ISIL in Afghanistan, saying the group has been under heavy pressure from US strikes and Afghan forces on the ground.
The threat of attack targeting Shiites was considered particularly serious during Ashura, and many foreign embassies in Kabul had restricted their staff’s movements until the end of the week.