The Islamic State in Afghanistan claimed responsibility for the attack, posting a statement Friday to social media accounts with links to the group. It marks the first attack in the Afghan capital claimed by the extremists in months.
Afghan opposition leader Abdullah Abdullah was at the rally when the attack began but escaped unhurt, according to his spokesman.
The deadly shooting comes just days after the signing of a peace deal between the United States and the Taliban and highlights the likelihood of continued violence in Afghanistan despite peace talks.
The Islamic State is just one of many armed groups in the country opposed to the current peace efforts. It is neither allied with the Afghan government nor the Taliban, and endorses attacks on civilians who do not adhere to the group's strict interpretation of fundamentalist Islam.
The Taliban quickly issued a statement Friday saying it was not behind the attack. The United States and the Taliban signed a peace deal Saturday, and since then the militants have launched attacks on Afghan government forces, but are under pressure to minimize civilian casualties.
The attack in southwestern Kabul began when two gunmen fired down onto a crowd commemorating a revered Shiite martyr from a multistory building nearby. Armed with machine guns, hand grenades and rocket-propelled grenades, the attackers quickly caused massive bloodshed and held off a unit of elite Afghan police for hours more, according to Interior Ministry spokesman Nasrat Rahimi.
Hayatullah Asadi ran for cover behind a wall after the shooting began. "People were terrified, they were screaming and fleeing," he told The Washington Post from a nearby hospital were many of the wounded were being treated.
The last attacker was killed more than five hours after the initial shots were fired, according to a senior Afghan official who spoke on the condition of anonymity as he was not authorized to speak to the media while the investigation into the attack was ongoing. The official said the large number of interconnected rooms and the presence of civilians in the building used by the attackers slowed efforts to reach them.
Rahimi, the Interior Ministry spokesman, said 32 people were killed and 81 were wounded Friday, including women and children.
The U.S. military command in Kabul said the response to Friday's attack was "Afghan-led and Afghan executed, with advice and assistance from U.S. forces, to include medical assistance to those injured in today's attack," according to a statement sent to The Washington Post.
The attack also comes at a time of deep political divisions in Afghanistan. Afghan President Ashraf Ghani and his rival Abdullah both declared victory when disputed election results were announced last month.
But despite those divisions, both Ghani and Abdullah condemned the attack Friday. Ghani also called Abdullah on Friday to assure him of his "well being" afterward, according to a tweet from his office.
The two men are also at odds over how to proceed with peace talks with the Taliban. The U.S.-Taliban peace deal signed Saturday set the date for intra-Afghan talks for March 10. But there is a dispute over whether to release thousands of Taliban prisoners ahead of those talks or to use the prisoners as leverage moving forward.
The Afghan capital has enjoyed a period of relative calm in recent months as U.S. negotiators pressured the Taliban to halt large-scale attacks there in the lead-up to the signing of the peace deal.
Additionally, military pressure on the Islamic State in Afghanistan brought with it a drop in that group's attacks nationwide. The last large-scale attack in Kabul was claimed by the group in August when a suicide bomber targeted a wedding hall killing 63 people, mostly members of the ethnic Hazara and Shiite minority.
Published : March 07, 2020
By : The Washington Post · Susannah George, Sayed Salahuddin · WORLD, MIDDLE-EAST