At least 50 people were killed and 72 wounded on Tuesday when a suicide bomber struck a Kabul wedding hall where Islamic religious scholars had gathered to mark the birthday of the prophet Muhammad, the Afghan Public Health Ministry said.
Witnesses told Afghan news media that at least 1,000 people were packed inside the Uranus Wedding Hall when the assailant detonated the explosives shortly after 6 p.m. local time.
Dozens of ambulances raced to the venue, located just west of Kabul’s international airport along a stretch of road with several large, brightly lighted wedding halls that also host other religious and social events.
The death toll rose steadily throughout the evening as many who had been critically wounded died of their injuries at hospitals.
No group immediately claimed responsibility, but suspicion fell on Islamic State extremists, who have previously attacked religious gatherings.
In June, an Islamic State suicide bomber in Kabul attacked a gathering of religious scholars just as the group issued an edict condemning such attacks as “unforgivable sins.” At least seven people were killed and 20 wounded.
One of the lead clerics in Tuesday’s gathering was a Sufi, a member of a Muslim religious order that Islamists regard as heretics. Last year, an Islamic State suicide bomber attacked a revered Sufi shrine in southern Pakistan, killing at least 72 people.
Pentagon officials believe that the number of Islamic State loyalists in Afghanistan is only several hundred, but they have survived an intense U.S.-led bombing campaign in the country’s rugged east and continue to carry out major attacks in Kabul, often targeting religious minorities.
The attack comes as Kabul and other Afghan cities are increasingly on edge over militant violence, mainly by the far more numerous Taliban insurgents who have battled U.S. and Afghan forces since 2001. U.S. officials have held the first direct talks with Taliban representatives outside Afghanistan in recent months, a possible precursor to peace negotiations.
The Taliban denied involvement in Tuesday’s attack and condemned the violence.
Afghan President Ashraf Ghani declared Wednesday a national day of mourning. The U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan, John R. Bass, said he was “sickened and deeply saddened” by the incident.
Sickened and deeply saddened by tonight’s terror attack as the Ulema Council marked the Prophet’s Birthday. I extend our condolences to the families and followers of those killed and wounded.— John R. Bass (@USAmbKabul) November 20, 2018
Special correspondent Faizy reported from Kabul and Times staff writer Bengali from Singapore.
Follow @SBengali on Twitter
9:30 a.m.: This article was updated throughout with staff reporting, including a higher death toll.
7:05 a.m.: This article was updated with information from the Afghan Public Health Ministry and Interior Ministry, as well as background information.
This article was originally published at 6:35 a.m.