Hundreds of delegates from the Afghan Ulema Council and their followers were commemorating the birth anniversary of the prophet Muhammad when a suicide bomber who had infiltrated the assembly detonated a vest packed with high explosives, shattering an opening recitation of Koranic verses, witnesses and officials said.
No group immediately claimed responsibility for the attack, but suspicion promptly fell on the Islamic State. The militant group’s tactics in Afghanistan have proven too radical even for the Taliban insurgent movement, which issued a statement saying it “strongly condemns” Tuesday’s bloodshed.
Survivors on Wednesday described scenes of carnage that unfolded when a massive blast and fireball erupted in a large hall usually used for weddings in a Kabul hotel, just as a prayer leader was reciting version from the Koran to open the program.
Among those thrown to the floor by the blast was Shafiullah Jarah, a 19-year-old student at an Islamic religious school. He was attending the ceremony with dozens of friends from the Mufti Numan Madrassa in northern Kabul. When he looked around after the explosion, he was surrounded by body parts, some of them belonging to fellow students, he recalled Wednesday.
Nine of his friends were killed and about 10 were wounded, Jarah said.
“We slipped on blood,” he added. “The face of any dead body I turned around was a friend’s.”
President Ashraf Ghani called the attack “unforgivable” and declared Wednesday a national day of mourning.
The U.S. ambassador in Afghanistan, John R. Bass, said on Twitter that he was “sickened and deeply saddened” by the terrorist attack.
The United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan called it an “atrocity” and demanded that the perpetrators be “brought to justice.”
“No one can justify such an attack,” said Fazul Rahman, 22, as he waited outside Kabul’s Emergency Hospital on Wednesday for news of his uncle, who was wounded in the bombing.
Rahman rushed to the hospital soon after he received a call about his uncle’s injury Tuesday night.
“It was a horror,” he said of the scene outside the hospital as people frantically searched for loved ones.
Thirty-seven victims were brought to Emergency Hospital, according to a list displayed on a board outside the facility. Five were dead, the rest wounded.
Jarah, the madrassa student, may have survived the attack physically. But, like other survivors, he said he was traumatized by what he experienced — mental wounds that seemed unlikely to heal anytime soon.
“God destroy the people behind the blast,” he said. “I swear that I will never forget.”
Sayed Salahuddin in Kabul and William Branigin in Washington contributed to this report.