Kabul, Afghanistan: At least 63 people died in the Afghan capital this weekend when a suicide bomber linked to the Daesh blew himself up in a crowded wedding hall late Saturday night. It was one of the most devastating attacks on civilians here in years of conflict and terror.
The local affiliate of the extremist Sunni militia claimed responsibility in an online statement Sunday, accompanied by an image of a young man with an assault rifle. The Arabic text described him as a Pakistani named Abu Asim who had attacked a gathering of "rejecter polytheists," as the group describes followers of Shiite Islam.
Officials initially said 38 people had died, but the awful scale of the wedding attack became apparent Sunday morning, when the Interior Ministry said at least 63 had been killed and more than 180 wounded. City hospitals were overwhelmed and relatives waited hours outside for news of their loved ones.
The unprecedented targeting of a wedding party, attended by women and children, struck at the heart of Kabul's lively, family-oriented social scene centered around weddings. Brightly lit, multistory wedding halls here often hold several such mass celebrations on a single weekend night.
A spokesman for the Taliban insurgents, Sohail Shaheen, denied any connection to the bombing in a tweet Sunday. He called it a "brutal act" and said the group "condemns it in the strongest terms." The Taliban is currently in peace negotiations with US officials, who have said they expect to reach a deal soon that would lead to most U.S. troops leaving the country.
The Taliban and Daesh are two sides of the same coin. They used to attack mosques, and now they have started with wedding halls.
The Taliban, an Afghan militia with extremist Sunni beliefs, often attacks military and government targets. The Daesh, an international Sunni militia, is notorious for savage attacks on civilians and views Shiites as apostates. Its local affiliate, the Daesh in Khorasan, has claimed many previous attacks in Kabul, especially in the city's western, Shiite-dominated districts.
President Ashraf Ghani, however, partly blamed the Taliban in a tweet offering condolences for the victims of the "barbaric" attack. But he added, "Taliban cannot absolve themselves of blame, for they provide platform for terrorists."
Around 11 p.m. Saturday, more than 1,000 guests were gathered in the salon in the Dubai City wedding hall. Dinner had just been served, with male and female guests in separate sections. In the men's section, loud music was pounding and young boys were dancing near the stage when a man posing as a guest detonated his bomb at a nearby table.
"There was a huge boom and the hall went dark. People were running and falling in all corners. It was like doomsday," said Sakhi Mohammed, a guest. He was waiting outside the city's Emergency Hospital, where his brother was being treated for wounds.
The bride and groom both survived the blast but lost family members, including 14 people on the bride's side. The groom, a tailor in his 20s named Mirwais Elmi, told Kabul's ToloNews TV that his family was in shock and would never recover.
"My bride keeps fainting. I lost my brother, my friends, my relatives," Elmi said. "I never thought such a thing would happen at my wedding. I will never see happiness in my life again."
Jamshid Alami, a wedding singer and musician, was performing at a different event Saturday night, but he said a group of his brothers, cousins and friends in the band were onstage at the Dubai City event when the bomb exploded. Five of them were killed.
"My brothers are gone. How can I take them home? What will I tell our mother?" Alami said, sobbing uncontrollably as he stood outside the Istiqlal Hospital early Sunday. He cursed Ghani, the president, as he wept, saying his government had failed to protect the people.
Many of the dead and wounded were members of the same families, and numerous children were reported to be among the casualties. By Sunday morning the first funerals were being held, some for several related victims.
At one funeral in a parched cemetery in western Kabul, Hussain Dad, 70, watched while two young men, both friends of the groom, were buried in wooden coffins after a Muslim cleric bent over the graves and recited prayers in Arabic. Unmarked stones were then placed at the head of each grave.
"They were innocent young men. They had not harmed a single fly," said Dad. The few mourners disbanded quickly afterward, worried about further violence. The victims were both members of the ethnic Hazara and Shiite minority, which predominates in western Kabul.
"The Taliban and Daesh are two sides of the same coin," Dad said, using the Arabic acronym for the Daesh. "They used to attack mosques, and now they have started with wedding halls."
Western Kabul is the center of urban commercial and residential life for ethnic Hazaras and Shiite Muslims. The wedding Saturday night was largely attended by Hazaras and the bride and groom were both Shiite.
The bombing was one of the deadliest ever in the Afghan capital, which has suffered scores of terrorist attacks during the last decade. The targets have included military and police facilities and convoys, places of worship, government offices, hotels and foreign compounds.
Among the deadliest recent attacks was a car bombing Aug. 7 near a police facility a few blocks from the Dubai City wedding hall, which killed 65 people and wounded 145. On July 28, a truck bomb and ground attack near government compounds killed 45 people and wounded 116. The worst attack to date was a truck bombing in May, 2017, in a diplomatic and official district, which killed 150 people and injured more than 400.
On Sunday afternoon, the Dubai City hotel was silent and empty. Dozens of tin roof sheets gaped open to the sky. Bucolic alpine scenes painted on the salon walls had been shredded. Furniture lay at odd angles, spattered with blood.
Mohammed Naeem, 24, a part owner, was there, surveying the damage. He said he was in the hotel's flower shop when the bomb exploded and guests began screaming. "When I reached the room, dead and wounded bodies were piled up."
Naeem said the group that had booked the hotel for Sunday night has already canceled.
"Very few people will dare to go to wedding halls from now on," he said.