Dec. 8 (Bloomberg) -- Afghan President Hamid Karzai called the bombing at a Shiite Muslim shrine in Kabul a “declaration of enmity” by a Pakistani extremist group, escalating tensions with the nation’s eastern neighbor.
“The responsibility for this attack hostile to mankind and Islam was claimed by Lashkar-e-Jhangvi based in Pakistan,” Karzai said in a e-mailed statement yesterday. “Afghanistan takes this very seriously” and “we will fully follow up with Pakistan.”
A suicide bomber detonated an explosive vest at the gate of the Abul Fazl shrine in Kabul Dec. 6, killing 56 people and wounding almost 150, Ghulam Sakhi Kargar, spokesman for public health ministry, said by phone yesterday.
Afghan Islamic Press, a news agency in the Pakistani provincial capital of Peshawar, said it received a phone call from Lashkar-e-Jhangvi claiming responsibility for the Kabul attack. Karzai did not indicate that he had information beyond that claim.
Lashkar is an organization of Islam’s Sunni Deobandi sect and has conducted scores of bombings and shootings against minority Shiites in Pakistan. The U.S. State Department in 2003 listed it as a terrorist group, saying it had links to al-Qaeda and was involved with the 2002 kidnapping-murder of Wall Street Journal correspondent Daniel Pearl in Pakistan.
The 300-strong, violent anti-Shiite group was formed in 1996 by veterans of the war against the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, with support from Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence agency, said a senior U.S. intelligence official who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he isn’t authorized to speak publicly. It has never before launched an attack outside Pakistan, the official added.
“The group officially is banned in Pakistan but it has a long history of receiving support from Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence Directorate,” wrote retired Defense Intelligence Agency analyst John F. McCreary in his Dec. 6 NightWatch newsletter. “LeJ has never had a presence in Afghanistan, but it obviously has sympathetic organized groups of Afghans willing to work as its agents.”
Relations between the two countries are already strained by the alleged aid from Pakistan’s spy agency to militants fighting in Afghanistan, including the Taliban and the Haqqani network. The bombings followed by a day an international conference on Afghanistan’s future, which Pakistan boycotted after a border clash with U.S. forces that left 24 Pakistani soldiers dead.
Karzai canceled plans to visit the U.K. yesterday, returning home following three bombings that targeted worshipers observing a Shiite Muslim holiday and sparked fears of sectarian violence. Bombs also exploded at Shiite observances of the Ashura holiday in the northern city of Mazar-e-Sharif, killing four, and the southern city of Kandahar, which claimed no lives.
Afghanistan has largely avoided the violence between Sunnis and Shiites that have been part of the struggles in Pakistan and Iraq.
“The significance of the attacks is that they occurred in three of the most important towns in Afghanistan and from south to north,” McCreary said. “The message is that determined groups can attack anywhere with impunity in Afghanistan.”
Karzai yesterday visited wounded at the Emergency Hospital for Victim of War in Kabul. He called the attacks a “declaration of enmity against the people of Afghanistan and Islam,” according to the e-mail from his office.
The attacks, which were condemned by the Taliban, raise the risk that sectarian bloodshed may be exported to Afghanistan by Pakistan-based groups, the Austin, Texas risk analysis company Stratfor said, as the U.S.-led coalition plans for a 2014 pullout.
‘Screaming and Crying’
The Kabul attack targeted worshipers who had gathered for Ashura, which marks the death 14 centuries ago of a Muslim leader, Imam Hussein, the prophet Muhammad’s grandson. In Washington, State Department spokesman Mark Toner said one private American citizen, whose name was not made public, was among the dead.
“Before I arrived at the gate, there was a huge explosion and I fell down,” said Shuja Ahmad, 35, a government employee who had come to the mosque for Ashura prayers. “I saw people running, screaming and crying and saw bodies everywhere.”
Afghanistan’s main militant movement, the Taliban, arrested or killed thousands of Shiites in Mazar-e-Sharif and other cities during the Taliban regime in the 1990s. Still, those attacks didn’t include bombings of religious ceremonies, and inciting a Shiite backlash now, amid the Taliban’s fight against U.S.-led forces, “does not fit into their strategy,” Stratfor said in an e-mailed analysis.
Zabihullah Mujahed, a Taliban spokesman, denied in an e- mail that his group was responsible for the attacks, saying that “the brutal incidents that happened in Kabul and Mazar-e-Sharif are against Islamic law and humanity.” His e-mail said that “the foreigners want civilians to hate the Taliban more and more.”
The attacks increase concerns of a more complex civil war in Afghanistan as the U.S.-led coalition hands over security to the Afghan army and police. A second round of formal transfers of security responsibility is under way in provinces and districts throughout the country. Those transfers are due to be completed by the end of 2014, when a limited U.S. force is to remain to support Afghan government security.
The top U.S. military commander in Afghanistan, General John Allen, has privately recommended delaying new American troop withdrawals planned by the Obama administration until 2014, the Wall Street Journal reported yesterday.
In the northern city of Mazar-e-Sharif, a bomb attached to a bicycle exploded as people walked across a street to attend an Ashura ceremony, said Sherjan Durani, a spokesman for the Balkh province government. Four people were killed and 21 wounded, Durani said.
A bomb that was placed on a parked motorcycle in the southern city of Kandahar exploded without killing anyone, said Zalmai Ayoubi, a spokesman for the province.
--With assistance from James Rupert in New Delhi, Patrick Donahue and Tony Czuczka in Berlin and Viola Gienger in Washington. Editors: Terry Atlas, Steven Komarow
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