KABUL, Afghanistan (AP) — Militants stormed a Shiite mosque in the Afghan capital while worshippers were at Friday prayers, setting off an explosion that killed a security guard outside and pushing into the two-story building, officials said. A cleric who was leading the service was also killed, according to initial reports.
The Islamic State group claimed responsibility for the attack while the assault was still underway, the latest to target Afghanistan’s minority Shiites.
The police were promptly deployed at the site in a northern Kabul neighborhood and encircled the mosque. Security forces initially avoided advancing inside to prevent further casualties, police official Mohammed Jamil said. Later, policemen made an attempt to enter the mosque but withdrew after one of the attackers set off an explosion, said police official Mohammad Sadiq Muradi.
Mohammad Ismail Kawasi, a spokesman for Afghanistan’s health ministry, said authorities believe that along with the two dead so far, eight people were also wounded in the attack.
More explosions and gunfire echoed from inside the mosque well into the afternoon. The mosque had been packed with worshippers for Friday prayers, the high point of the Muslim week, Jamil added.
Mir Hussain Nasiri, a member of Afghanistan’s Shiite clerical council, said the cleric who was performing the prayers was killed, but did not give his name. Nasiri said the gunmen have taken over the portion of the mosque with the separate prayer areas for men and women.
He said the mosque could accommodate up to 1,000 people. A sprawling cavernous prayer hall dominated the main floor. The second floor is where the women pray. Nasiri said when police initially sought to get into the mosque, the attackers blocked the door leading to the second floor, which he said would mean they are holding the women who were there as hostages.
In its claim of responsibility, the Islamic State affiliate in Afghanistan said through its Aamaq news agency that two of its fighters carried out the assault, seeking martyrdom. It did not give further details.
The attack was the latest by IS to hit the Afghan capital.
Last month, the Islamic State group attacked the Iraqi Embassy in Kabul and afterward, issued a warning to all Shiites in Afghanistan, saying their places of worship would be targeted. Sunni extremists consider Shiite Muslims to be heretics.
Within days of the embassy attack in Kabul, IS also took responsibility for a brutal suicide assault on a Shiite mosque in western Herat province that left 32 people dead after gunmen stormed the mosque.
Meanwhile, in southern Kandahar province, Afghan security forces repulsed a Taliban attack on an outpost, according to provincial police chief’s spokesman, Zia Durrani. Four members of the security forces died in the exchange and another seven were wounded, he said.
Durrani said the attack occurred overnight and the Taliban sustained heavy casualties. There was no immediate comment from the Taliban.
Elsewhere, provincial deputy police chief Nisar Ahmad Abdul Rahimzai saids that Afghan security forces recaptured a district in eastern Paktia province from the insurgents.
The summer fighting season in Afghanistan has been brutal so far this year, with relentless Taliban attacks around the country as the insurgents battle to expand their footprint.
Associated Press Writers Kathy Gannon from Islamabad, Maamoun Youssef in Cairo and Mirwais Khan in Kandahar, Afghanistan, contributed to this report.