A series of bomb blasts targeted a Shiite Muslim cultural center and news agency in the Afghan capital on Thursday, killing at least 41 people and wounding dozens in an attack that underscored the threats facing the country’s journalists and religious minorities.
Three explosions struck a compound that houses Tebyan, a cultural center with links to Shiite-dominated Iran, during a commemoration of the December 1979 Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, officials said.
Witnesses and journalists said that dozens of students and other visitors had gathered at the cultural center in Dasht-e Barchi, a western Kabul neighborhood with a large Shiite population. The majority of Afghan Muslims are Sunnis.
The attack began when a suicide bomber walked into the building shortly after 10 a.m. and detonated a vest packed with explosives. That was followed by two more explosions caused by “sticky bombs” that had been planted on the walls of the compound, according to Afghan interior ministry officials.
The attack also wounded 84 people, according to the public health ministry.
Islamic State claimed responsibility for the attack, saying it targeted the center because it “sends students to Iran to learn from the ayatollahs,” according to the group’s Amaq news agency.
The South Asian branch of the Sunni militant organization has previously targeted Shiites and other religious minorities in Afghanistan and Pakistan. U.S. and Afghan forces have waged a sustained bombing campaign against its strongholds in eastern Afghanistan, where 600 militants are believed to be based, but the group has continued to carry out major attacks in Kabul.
In October, at least 50 people were killed when an Islamic State suicide bomber blew himself up inside a mosque in Dasht-e Barchi.
Zia Rezayee, a 22-year-old university student who lives near the Tebyan compound, said he heard the blast as he was walking and rushed to the scene.
“Everyone was dead or injured,” he said. “There was no one in sight who hadn’t been wounded.”
He was helping move a wounded person into an ambulance when he heard the second and third blasts, he said.
“Then we all, including the security forces, fled the area,” Rezayee said. “It was a nightmare. People were lying everywhere.”
Afghan President Ashraf Ghani called the attack “an inhuman act that is against all Islamic and human principles.”
The suicide bomber struck on the ground floor of the building, which houses the Tebyan cultural center. The second and third floors are home to the Afghan Voice news agency and Ensaf, a daily newspaper.
Tebyan is one of several cultural and media organizations in Afghanistan that are sponsored by Iran, which has sought to project its influence in the neighboring country. Iran has also recruited Afghan Shiites — particularly members of the Hazara ethnic group — to fight Islamic State militants in Syria as part of militias loyal to Syrian President Bashar Assad.
Islamic State’s attacks against Afghan Shiites were part of an effort to weaken Iran’s influence in the region, analysts said.
“Iran has been the main sponsor of Tebyan from the beginning, so the propaganda machinery of the Shiite theocracy in Iran has been targeted in Afghanistan,” said Nader Karmi Juni, an independent analyst in Tehran. “This is a bad sign for the influence of Iran in the future.”
It was the second attack in as many months to strike an Afghan news outlet. In November, Shamshad, a television station broadcasting in the Pashto language, was bombed and two employees were killed in an attack claimed by Islamic State.
The Afghan Journalists Safety Committee, a nongovernmental group, reported 73 cases of violence against journalists and media workers, including 10 deaths, in the first six months of 2017: a sharp rise from the year before.
Human rights groups said Thursday’s attack showed that Kabul is increasingly unsafe for civilians.
“In one of the deadliest years on record, journalists and other civilians continue to be ruthlessly targeted by armed groups,” said Biraj Patnaik, South Asia director for Amnesty International.
As representatives of Western governments also rushed to condemn the attack, advocates accused the officials of hypocrisy because European countries in recent months have deported Afghan asylum-seekers, arguing that the country is not an active war zone.
“The European governments who insist on this dangerous fiction by forcibly returning Afghans are putting their lives in danger,” Patnaik said.
(Special correspondent Faizy reported from Kabul and Times staff writer Bengali from Mumbai, India. Special correspondent Ramin Mostaghim contributed to this report from Tehran.)
© 2017 Los Angeles Times
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