Taliban police commander Abdul Ghafar Mohammadi said the blasts killed more than 50 and wounded at least 100, and he said he expected the toll to rise as health workers recovered more bodies.
Many “dead bodies remain under the ruined mosque,” Hafiz Abdul Hai Abbas, health director for the province, told The Washington Post earlier in the day.
Many fear recent attacks demonstrate that the Taliban — which took over Afghanistan two months ago — is unable to curb other militant and terrorist groups, especially in urban areas. Al-Qaeda and the Islamic State remain active in Afghanistan, and if they grow in power under Taliban rule, the country could again become a haven for those intent on launching international attacks.
Last Friday’s suicide bombing in Kunduz was claimed by the Islamic State’s Afghanistan branch. The blast struck a crowded Shiite mosque during Friday prayers, killing nearly 50 worshipers and wounding dozens more. The Sunni extremist Islamic State considers Shiite Muslims to be heretics and often targets their places of worship.
The Islamic State also claimed responsibility for an attack Thursday that killed a Taliban police chief in the eastern province of Konar, according to local media reports.
The Taliban’s ability to maintain tight security in territory under its control has been a core source of its popularity. Now in control of the entire country, the movement is under immense pressure to extend similar protections nationwide. Taliban leadership condemned Friday’s attack as “a big crime” and ordered the movement’s fighters to arrest those behind it.
Eyewitnesses told The Post that they heard multiple explosions from the mosque.
“First, I heard gunfire and then explosions followed,” said Abdul Jabar Karimi, 40, who was near the blasts. “Blood was everywhere.”
Meanwhile, Murtaza Khaledi, 26, said he saw as many as four suicide bombers — two who detonated their bombs near the mosque’s entrance, and two who set off their bombs inside the building.
“Everyone is shocked. Shiites in Kandahar were never attacked before,” Khaledi said.
Footage from inside the mosque showed several bloodied bodies on the floor, some covered in sheets, while onlookers wailed. The Taliban said it had sent its elite forces to the site to investigate.
But Kandahar is not a part of the country that has seen significant Islamic State activity previously. The province is the Taliban’s historic heartland, and has great symbolic value and a rural population that has traditionally supported the militants.
The United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan also condemned the attack on what it said was Kandahar’s largest Shiite mosque. The U.N. statement put the number of dead at 30.
“Those responsible need to be held to account,” the mission tweeted.
Cheung reported from London. Mohammadullah Aryen in Kabul contributed to this report.