Kabul: A woman cries outside a hospital after learning that she had lost a relative in the suicide attack.—AP
Kabul: A woman cries outside a hospital after learning that she had lost a relative in the suicide attack.—AP

KABUL: A suicide bomber blew himself up outside a voter registration centre in the Afghan capital on Sunday, killing at least 57 people and injuring more than 100, in the most serious attack yet on preparations for elections scheduled for October.

Pakistan condemned the attack and expressed the hope that it would not deter Afghans from determining their future by exercising their right to vote.

The militant Islamic State (IS) group claimed responsibility for the attack on a project of key importance to the credibility of President Ashraf Ghani’s government, which has been under international pressure to ensure long-delayed parliamentary polls take place this year.

Pakistan condemns suicide bombing claimed by IS

The spokesman for Afghanistan’s interior ministry, Najib Danesh, said a bomber on foot approached the centre where officials were issuing identity cards as part of the registration process for around 10 million voters across Afghanistan. Registration began this month.

President Ghani issued a statement condemning the attack and said it “cannot divert us from our aims or weaken this national democratic process”.

Blood-stained street

A spokesman for the ministry of public health said at least 57 people were confirmed dead and 119 wounded, but the total could still rise.

The explosion destroyed cars and shattered windows in nearby buildings, leaving rubble strewn across the blood-stained street.

It was the deadliest blast in Kabul since about 100 people were killed in January by a bomb concealed in an ambulance and it came after repeated warnings that militants could try to disrupt the election process.

After weeks of relative calm, the blast took place in Dasht-i-Barchi, an area of western Kabul inhabited by many members of the Shia Hazara minority, which has been repeatedly hit by attacks claimed by IS.

“There were women, children. Everyone had come to get their identity cards,” said Bashir Ahmad who had been near the blast, which occurred despite heightened security after the January attack.

According to UN figures, more than 750 people have been killed or maimed in suicide attacks and bombings by militant groups during the three months to March ahead of an expected start of the Taliban’s usual spring offensive.

Afghanistan’s international partners have insisted that the elections should be held this year before a presidential vote due in 2019, although there has been widespread scepticism that they will go ahead.

More than 7,000 voter registration centres have been set up across Afghanistan to handle about 10 million registrations in a process that has been repeatedly disrupted by technical and organisational problems.

Officials had pledged tight security to ensure the process proceeded safely. But those caught by Sunday’s attack voiced frustration at what many Kabul residents see as government shortcomings in securing the capital.

“They should be keeping the country safe, if they can’t, someone else should be in their place,” said Sajeda, who was wounded in the blast along with three other members of her family as they lined up for their cards.

Baghlan blast

The voter registration process, designed to reduce the electoral fraud that has marred past ballots, began this month but there have already been several security incidents.

On Sunday, a roadside bomb near a registration centre in Pul-i-Khumri, the capital of Baghlan province, killed six members of a family and wounded three.

Last week, two police officers in Jalalabad were killed outside a voter registration centre, while a voter centre in the central province of Ghor was burned down last week and electoral officials briefly abducted.

FO reaction

The Foreign Office in Islamabad condemned the “heinous and reprehensible suicide attacks in which many innocent civilians were killed and many others injured at voter registration centres in Kabul and Baghlan provinces in Afghanistan”.

“Pakistan is confident that such attacks would not deter the resolve of the Afghan people to determine their own future through the exercise of their right to vote,” said the Foreign Office statement.

It reiterated the Pakistani government’s unequivocal condemnation of terrorism in all its forms and expressed solidarity with the government and people of Afghanistan in this hour of grief and sorrow.

Published in Dawn, April 23rd, 2018