Scores of worshippers have been killed and more than 100 others wounded following multiple blasts at a mosque in Afghanistan‘s Nangarhar province, according to local officials.
Attaullah Khogyani, a spokesman for Nangarhar’s governor, said at least 62 people had been killed by the explosions, which rocked the building in the eastern province’s Haska Mena district during Friday prayers.
Sohrab Qaderi, a member of the provincial council in Nangarhar, told Reuters news agency that more than 100 others had been wounded in the incident and the death toll was likely to rise.
“The number of casualties may rise as the rescue team and people are working to bring out the bodies from the rubble,” Qaderi said.
Witnesses said the roof of the mosque had fallen through after the “loud” explosion. Some 350 worshippers were inside at the time, local resident Omar Ghorzang told AFP.
Malik Mohammadi Gul Shinwari, a tribal elder from the area, said that the mosque had been destroyed.
“It was a heartbreaking scene I witnessed,” Shinwari told Reuters.
There was no immediate claim of responsibility for the blasts, which Sediq Sediqqi, spokesman for Afghan President Ashraf Ghani, strongly condemned.
“The Afghan government strongly condemns today’s suicide attack in a mosque in Nangarhar province,” Sediqqi said in a post on Twitter.
“The Taliban and their partners heinous crimes continue to target civilians in time of worship,” he added.
But Suhail Shaheen, a spokesman for the Taliban, denied responsibility. “All witnesses say it was a mortar attack by Kabul Adm. [Administration] forces,” he said in a tweet.
The figures – 1,174 deaths and 3,139 wounded from July 1 until September 30 this year – represent a 42 percent increase over the same period last year. More than 40 percent of the casualties were women and children.
The UN laid the blame mainly at the feet of “anti-government elements” such as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL or ISIS) armed group and the Taliban, which was removed from power during a US-led invasion in 2001, though it said it also documented an alarming rise in casualties caused by pro-government forces.
Both ISIL and the Taliban are active in Nangarhar province, with Afghan security forces struggling to battle both groups after the United States and NATO officially concluded their combat mission in the country four years ago.
Efforts to end Afghanistan’s 18-year-war have been stepped up recently, with US peace envoy Zalmay Khalilzad visiting Pakistan earlier this month to meet with the Taliban’s top negotiator, Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar.
US officials said Khalilzad was in the Pakistani capital, Islamabad, to follow up on talks he held in September in New York with Pakistani officials, including Prime Minister Imran Khan.
They insisted Khalilzad was not in Pakistan to restart US-Taliban peace talks, however.
The meeting was the first that Khalilzad has held with the Taliban since last month, when US President Donald Trump declared that the peace talks, which have largely been held in Qatar, were “dead”.
He blamed an uptick in violence by the Taliban – that included the killing of a US soldier – for the breakdown in negotiations.