KABUL — A bomb exploded during Friday prayers in a mosque packed with army troops in Afghanistan’s southeastern Khost province, killing at least 27 of them, a government spokesman said.
There were conflicting accounts as to how the blast was triggered. Some officials said a suicide bomber detonated explosives on his body, while other officials said they suspected that a bomb hidden in the main hall of the mosque detonated as soldiers were beginning to offer special Friday prayers.
Dozens of other troops were wounded in the attack on a sprawling main army base in the Mandozai district near the border with Pakistan.
“The initial report we have suggests that 10 have been killed. It happened during Friday prayers,” said Talib Mangal, a spokesman for the governor of Khost.
Later, an Afghan army spokesman in the area, Abdullah, said 27 troops died in the blast.
The attack came three days after 55 Islamic scholars and clerics were killed by a suicide bomber in a hotel in Kabul while marking the birth of Islam’s prophet Muhammad.
No group has asserted responsibility for either attack. Ordinary Afghans and the U.S.-backed government are grappling with the increasing militancy of the Taliban and Islamic State insurgencies.
A Defense Ministry spokesman, Sayed Ghafoor Javid, said in a telephone interview that a helicopter was sent to evacuate the casualties, but he said did not have a firm figure on the number of dead and wounded.
Based on the account of the brigade commander who was present at the time of the blast, Maj. Gen. Malik Maluk, a senior officer at the Defense Ministry in Kabul told The Washington Post that the explosion happened right after the sermon.
Army bases have come under attack by Taliban militants in recent years, but Friday’s incident targeting a mosque was the first of its kind in such a facility. The Islamic State extremist group, however, has hit numerous mosques and gathering sites of Shiite Muslims in recent years, killing hundreds.
Friday’s attack appears likely to be seen as another intelligence failure for the Afghan security apparatus, which has suffered heavy casualties in recent years. President Ashraf Ghani weeks ago put the number of deaths of national security forces over the last four years at 28,000.
In a statement issued by the presidential palace, Ghani ordered an investigation into the incident and demanded the punishment of negligent officials.
The rising violence and wave of fresh attacks in various parts of the country raise further questions about the ability of the government in Kabul to hold a crucial presidential election slated for April 20. Long-delayed parliamentary elections were held last month, but the voting was marred by widespread mismanagement and major attacks by the Taliban.
Amid the escalating assaults, Taliban officials have held several rounds of talks with U.S. diplomats in recent months as Washington looks for a way to end an insurgency that began after the Taliban was ousted from power in Kabul by U.S. airstrikes and Afghan resistance forces in late 2001. The U.S. intervention followed the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, which were ordered from Afghan soil by al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden.
The U.S.-Taliban talks have spurred speculation about the formation of an interim Afghan government involving Taliban members, but a spokesman for the group has rejected the idea.