Two dead in attack on mosque in Kabul's Green Zone

An Afghan security officer stands guard after an explosion in Kabul on May 30, 2020.
An Afghan security officer stands guard after an explosion in Kabul on May 30, 2020. PHOTO: EPA-EFE

KABUL (AFP) - A well-known imam and a worshipper were killed in a prayer-time bombing at a popular mosque in Kabul's fortified Green Zone on Tuesday (June 2), officials said.

The latest attack in the Afghan capital came after seven civilians were killed in the north of the country in a roadside bomb blast authorities blamed on the Taleban.

No group immediately claimed the evening explosion in central Kabul, which occurred at one of the city's most famous places of worship.

A loud blast sent shockwaves through the sprawling militarised zone, where alarms sounded at various embassies and international offices, sending staff rushing into safe rooms.

"Unfortunately, this evening some explosives placed by terrorists in Wazir Akbar Khan mosque detonated," interior ministry spokesman Tareq Arian told AFP.

The mosque is located at the main entrance to the Green Zone and is accessible from both inside and outside the tightly controlled area. Top leaders often go there to offer ceremonial prayers.

The mosque's imam, Ayaz Niazi, was among those killed, Arian said. He was famous in Kabul and his politically charged sermons were often so well attended that worshippers would spill into the grounds outside the mosque.

Arian initially said the attack was conducted by a suicide bomber. But as investigations proceeded, it was not clear that remained the case.

President Ashraf Ghani's spokesman called the incident a "heinous" attack.

The attack follows a Saturday bombing claimed by the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) group against a television station's minibus in central Kabul, killing a journalist and the driver.

It also comes after officials said seven civilians were killed late on Monday by a roadside bomb linked to the Taleban in northern Afghanistan, even as authorities pressed for peace talks with the militants.

The blast struck a small truck in Kunduz province carrying a group of labourers in the volatile Khan Abad district.

No group claimed responsibility, but Kunduz provincial spokesman Esmatullah Muradi blamed the Taleban.

"The Taleban usually plant roadside bombs to target security forces, but their bombs usually kill civilians," he told AFP.

Two of six others wounded in the Kunduz blast were in critical condition, district chief Hayatullah Amiri said.

POSSIBLE PEACE TALKS

Despite the recent bloodshed, violence across much of Afghanistan has dropped overall since May 24, when the Taleban announced a surprise three-day ceasefire to mark the Eid al-Fitr holiday.

Ghani had welcomed the Taleban ceasefire offer and authorities responded by announcing around 2,000 Taliban prisoners would be released in a "goodwill gesture" with a view to kickstarting peace talks.

Afghanistan's former chief executive Abdullah Abdullah, who has been appointed to lead the talks, has said his team was ready to begin negotiations "at any moment".

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo held a video conference on Monday with top officials in Kabul including Ghani and his first deputy Amrullah Saleh.

While Saleh highlighted the importance of the ongoing drop in violence and the need for holding on to a ceasefire, the two sides discussed the future steps needed to bring peace in Afghanistan, Ghani's office said in a statement.

The issue of the release of Taleban prisoners and the venue for the intra-Afghan peace talks were discussed in particular, it said.

Violence had surged after the Taleban signed a landmark agreement with the United States in February, which paves the way for the withdrawal of all foreign forces by May next year.