ISLAMABAD - Officials in Afghanistan say at least 32 people were killed and around 60 injured Friday when gunmen opened fire on a gathering in Kabul, with high-profile opposition politicians in attendance.
Witnesses said the shooting started when a former vice president, Karim Khalili, was delivering his speech to a ceremony in the Afghan capital, organized to commemorate the death of a prominent minority Shi’ite Hazara politician.
The event was being shown live by Afghan television stations and Khalili could be seen running for cover along with others when the gunfire erupted from a nearby under-construction building.
There were women and children among those killed and injured, and Afghan health officials say they expect the death toll to increase.
Afghan Interior Ministry spokesman Nasrat Rahimi said Afghan security forces later engaged three assailants and killed them in the ensuing hours-long clash to end the siege.
Islamic State claimed responsibility for the deadly attack, saying two heavily armed men carried out the massacre. The Taliban insurgency swiftly denied its involvement.
The Islamic State terror group's regional affiliate, known as Khorasan Province or ISKP, has claimed responsibility for previous attacks on Shi’ite gatherings and worship places in Afghanistan.
Afghan Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah and former president Hamid Karzai were also among guest speakers at Friday’s gathering. Both of them escaped unharmed.
However, a former provincial governor was said to one among those wounded.
President Ashraf Ghani condemned the attack as a "crime against humanity", saying the violence was directed at Afghan national unity.
Last year’s commemoration of Abdul Ali Mazari’s death anniversary, which is mostly attended by Shi’ite Afghans, had also come under attack. About a dozen people were killed and many more were injured. That attack was claimed by Islamic State.
The ethnic Hazara leader was assassinated in 1995 after being taken hostage by militants when Afghanistan was in the grip of a deadly civil war.
Friday’s violence comes nearly a week after the United States and the Taliban sealed a landmark peace agreement in Qatar to try to bring an end to the Afghan war, now in its 19th year.
The deal signed last Saturday, subject to Taliban counterterrorism and political assurances, set the stage for Washington to close America’s longest war and bring back home in the next 14 months roughly 13,000 troops currently deployed to Afghanistan.
The U.S.-Taliban agreement binds Afghan parties to the conflict to open direct negotiations to agree on a permanent cease-fire and power-sharing in post-war Afghanistan. Those intra-Afghan talks are to begin on March 10, but they are facing uncertainty over a prisoner swap controversy.
Within 24 hours of the signing of the historic agreement, Afghan President Ashraf Ghani announced he had not given any commitment to Washington to free Taliban prisoners.
The U.S.-Taliban deal, however, in the run-up to the intra-Afghan talks set for March 10, says that up to 5,000 Taliban prisoners being held in Afghan jails, and 1,000 Afghan forces’ members in insurgent custody, are to be freed by March 10.
Suhail Shaheen, the Taliban political spokesman and a member of its negotiating team, said Friday if the intra-Afghan negotiations could not begin in time, the responsibility will rest with the other side.
"If the provisions of the agreements are implemented and prisoners are released, the Islamic Emirate [Taliban] is prepared for intra-Afghan negotiations on March 10. Our negotiation team and agenda are ready and will go ahead as agreed,” Shaheen stressed.
The U.S.-Taliban agreement also requires both of the adversaries not to attack each others’ forces and binds the insurgent group not to carry out suicide and other bombings in Afghan urban centers.
There has been an upsurge in battlefield violence during this week, but U.S. military commanders have played it down and vowed to uphold their part of the deal.
"Of significance, there's no attacks in 34 provincial capitals. There's no attacks in Kabul. There's no high-profile attacks. There's no suicide bombers. There's no vehicle-borne suicide, no attack against U.S. forces, no attack against coalition. There's a whole laundry list of these things that aren’t happening,” Gen. Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told a congressional hearing earlier this week.