An Afghan woman wearing a burqa walks in front of Jama Mosque in Herat on July 15, 2018. - AFP PHOTO - HOSHANG HASHIMI
Agence France-Presse

Burqa-clad suicide bombers struck a Shiite mosque in eastern Afghanistan Friday as it was crowded with worshippers for weekly prayers, killing at least 20 people and wounding dozens in the latest attack on the minority.

Officials have said they fear the death toll could rise after the assault, the latest targeting civilians who have borne the brunt of the violence in Afghanistan’s long conflict.

“Two suicide explosions happened during Friday prayers in the Khwaja Hasan area of Gardez,” said Abdullah Hasrat, spokesman for Paktia province near the Pakistan border.

Provincial police chief General Raz Mohammad Mandozai also confirmed the presence of two suicide bombers, adding that the assailants were wearing burqas to hide their weapons and explosives.

Once inside the mosque, the two attackers also opened fire on the crowd before detonating their bombs.

He said at least 20 people had been killed and around 50 others injured.

Other officials said as many as 25 people had died. Gardez public health department chief Wilayat Khan Ahmadzai said that more than 70 people in total had been killed and wounded, with many rushed to the city’s civilian hospital.

There was no immediate claim of responsibility for the attack.

The Taliban later denied any involvement in the incident, according to a Whatsapp message from the group’s spokesman sent to reporters.

Uptick in violence

It comes as urban areas across Afghanistan have been rocked by an increasing number of attacks in recent months, with both Islamic State (IS) and Taliban insurgents targeting security forces and government installations.

The Taliban has not claimed a major attack in a city for weeks as it comes under increased pressure to agree to peace talks with the Afghan government.

But IS has carried out multiple attacks in the eastern city of Jalalabad and the capital Kabul in recent months, targeting everything from government ministries to a midwife training centre.

Last month an IS suicide bomber blew himself up near Kabul international airport, killing 23 people including AFP driver Mohammad Akhtar.

The uptick in violence comes as US and Afghan forces intensify ground and air offensives against IS, and the Taliban step up their turf war with the group.

Earlier this week more than 150 IS fighters surrendered in northern Afghanistan — in a move that Afghan security forces and the Taliban hailed as the end of the extremist group in the north of the country.

The surrender followed the Afghan army’s decision to take over security in the eastern city of Jalalabad in IS’s main stronghold of Nangarhar province after a spate of attacks, mostly claimed by the group.

Afghan civilians have taken the brunt of the gruesome war that began after the 2001 US-led invasion uprooted the Taliban regime.

Insurgent attacks and suicide bombs were the leading causes of civilian deaths in the first half of 2018, a recent UN report showed.

A total of 1,692 civilians were killed, the highest number for the period since the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan began keeping records in 2009.

Another 3,430 people were wounded, the report added.

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