At least 80 people were killed and 231 injured when a huge blast rocked a mass demonstration by members of the mainly Shia Hazara minority in the Afghan capital, Kabul, on Saturday. The attack was claimed by terrorist group Islamic State: "Two fighters from Islamic State detonated explosive belts at a gathering of Shi'ites in the city of Kabul in Afghanistan," said a brief statement on the group's Amaq news agency.
A freelance journalist working for BBC Afghan said blood and body parts were everywhere, with debris strewn around.
It was the deadliest bombing in Kabul since April, when more than 60 people were killed in an attack on offices used by the security services. That was considered the worst single incident of its kind in Kabul since 2011. The government had received intelligence that an attack could take place, and had warned the march organizers, a spokesman for Afghan President Ashraf Ghani told The AP.
Graphic television footage from the site of the attack showed many dead bodies lying on the bloodied road, close to where thousands of Hazara had been demonstrating over the route of a planned multimillion dollar power line. The protesters, mostly ethnic minority Hazaras, were marching to demand that their impoverished home province be included in a major new electricity line, according to The Associated Press. The attack succeeded despite tight security which saw much of the city center sealed off with stacks of shipping containers and other obstacles and helicopters patrolling overhead.
If the attack is confirmed as the work of Islamic State, it would represent a major escalation for a group which has hitherto been largely confined to the eastern province of Nangarhar.
It would represent ISIS' first attack in the capital Kabul and would be the deadliest attack in Afghanistan yet.
The attack targeted the Hazara minority who have often complained of discrimination. The Persian-speaking Hazara, estimated to make up about 9 percent of the population, are Afghanistan's third-largest minority but they have long suffered discrimination and thousands were killed under Taliban rule. The Taliban, a fierce enemy of Islamic State, had issued a statement denying any involvement. "We would never take part in any incident that divides the Afghan people," Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid said.
Officials have confirmed to TOLOnews that at least three suicide bombers were present at the rally. The first detonated an explosives vest, the second was killed by police, while the third had a defective explosives vest. The fate of the third attacker is unknown.
According to Reuters, Saturday's demonstrators had been demanding the 500 kV transmission line from Turkmenistan to Kabul be rerouted through two provinces with large Hazara populations, an option the government says would cost millions and delay the badly needed project by years. But the resentment felt by many Hazaras runs deeper than simple questions of energy supply.
In November, thousands of Hazara marched through Kabul to protest at government inaction after seven members of their community were beheaded by Islamist militants and several protestors briefly tried to force their way into the presidential palace.
The protests by a group whose leaders include members of the national unity government have put pressure on President Ashraf Ghani, who has faced growing opposition from both inside and outside the government. They have also risked exacerbating ethnic tensions with other groups and provinces the government says would have to wait up to three years for power if the route were changed.
The transmission line, intended to provide secure electricity to 10 provinces is part of the so-called TUTAP project backed by the Asia Development Bank, linking energy-rich states of Central Asia with Afghanistan and Pakistan.
Hazaras say they want the line to come through Bamyan and Wardak provinces, west of Kabul, where many Hazaras live, to ensure their power supply. The government says the project already guarantees ample power to the two provinces and denies it disadvantages Hazara people.
Afghan President Ashraf Ghani said he was "deeply saddened", adding: "Peaceful protest is the right of every citizen, but opportunist terrorists infiltrated the crowds and carried out the attack, killing and injuring a number of citizens including some security forces."