KABUL: At least 25 people were killed on Wednesday in an attack on a Sikh temple in Afghanistan’s capital where worshippers were offering morning prayers, the latest brutal assault claimed by the militant Islamic State (IS) group.
The incident highlights the country’s ongoing security crisis and comes as the impoverished nation reels from a massive cut in US aid and struggles with a raging insurgency, political deadlock, and rising coronavirus cases.
Pakistan condemned the assault and said there could be no justification for such an attack. In a statement, its Foreign Office expressed solidarity with the people of Afghanistan.
A witness to the attack, Singh Sonny, said a man dressed in a police uniform burst into the temple in central Kabul, shot a guard and started attacking worshippers in the main hall.
“Several other attackers also entered the building and they were going from room to room shooting people,” Sonny said.
Only a few thousand Sikhs and Hindus are estimated to reside in what is an overwhelmingly Muslim country. Interior ministry spokesman Tariq Arian said the assault started around 7:45am. There were conflicting accounts about how many gunmen were involved, with security sources giving differing numbers between one and four.
At least one attacker was subsequently killed by security forces in an hours-long clearing operation.
IS claimed responsibility for the attack, according to the SITE intelligence group. The Taliban denied any involvement.
Anarkali Kaur Honaryar, a Sikh member of the Afghan parliament, said at the time of the attack about 150 people were in the temple, where worshippers gather for morning prayers.
“Some people inside the temple are hiding and their phones are off,” Honaryar said while the attack was continuing.
Arian said 25 civilians had been killed and eight others wounded, while 80 people had been rescued from the temple. Graphic images posted online showed several bodies as well as terrified people who appeared to be Sikhs running from the scene.
IS has a history of targeting Afghan Sikhs and Hindus, including a suicide bombing in Jalalabad in July 2018 that killed 19 people and wounded 21.
In recent months, the militant group has suffered mounting setbacks after being hunted by US and Afghan forces as well as Taliban offensives targeting their fighters, but it still retains the ability to launch major assaults on urban centres.
Earlier this month, the group killed 32 people and wounded dozens more in an attack at a political gathering in Kabul.
To add to Afghanistan’s woes, Washington slashed the amount of aid to the country this week after President Ashraf Ghani and his rival Abdullah Abdullah, who has also proclaimed himself president, failed to resolve their standoff.
Following a visit to Kabul, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said the US would immediately cut $1 billion and was prepared to pull another $1bn in 2021, with further cuts possible.
Weighing in on the matter, the Foreign Office said: “Pakistan strongly condemns the heinous terrorist attack on a gurdwara in Kabul that has resulted in the loss of precious lives and injuries to several worshippers. Such despicable attacks have no political, religious or moral justification and must be rejected outright.”
“Our hearts go out to the families who have lost their loved ones in this inhuman act and we pray for the swiftest recovery of the injured. We also express our abiding solidarity with the fraternal people of Afghanistan,” the statement said.
“Pakistan condemns terrorism in all its forms and manifestations. All places of worship are sacrosanct and their sanctity must be respected at all times,” it added.
Baqir Sajjad Syed contributed to this report
Published in Dawn, March 26th, 2020