Afghan ceasefire calm shattered as 12 dead in mosque blast
At least 12 people were killed in a mosque explosion on the outskirts of the Afghan capital on Friday, breaking the calm on the second day of a ceasefire between the warring Taliban and government forces.
Among those killed was the Imam, who led Friday prayers at the mosque for the Muslim holiday of Eid al-Fitr. More than a dozen people were injured.
No group has so far claimed responsibility for the attack and the Taliban have denied responsibility.
Afghans have cautiously enjoyed a rare respite from the violence following the start of a three-day truce between Taliban militants and Afghan forces that began on Thursday, after weeks of intense fighting.
“The death toll rose to 12 people, including the imam of the mosque, and 15 others were injured,” said Ferdaws Framurz, a Kabul police spokesman, updating an earlier toll.
A spokesperson for the Interior Ministry said the explosives were placed in the mosque before prayers.
The governor of southern Uruzgan province, Fazel Ahmad Shirzad, meanwhile accused the Taliban of twice violating the ceasefire by attacking security forces on Friday – a day after the mine blasts soldiers killed several civilians in Kunduz, according to local officials.
The explosion comes after US and Afghan officials said on Friday that the United States had completely withdrawn from a major air base south of the former Taliban stronghold of Kandahar.
US airstrikes were launched from the base last week to help Afghan forces repel a major Taliban offensive in the south.
NATO-backed Washington has pledged to withdraw all foreign troops and end America’s longest war by September.
Kandahar was the birthplace of the Taliban and in recent months has seen intense clashes between resurgent militants and Afghan forces.
The US embassy in Kabul confirmed on Twitter that US forces had “completed the transition from Kandahar airfield to Afghan forces this week.”
Khoja Yaya Alawi, an Afghan army spokesman in Kandahar, said they were awaiting an official handover, but the last US troops “left the base on Wednesday”.
An Afghan army officer at Kandahar airfield, who asked not to be named, told AFP government forces would be left exposed by the withdrawal.
“It will now be very difficult for us to conduct operations,” he said. “Our plane cannot fly at night, so night operations are going to be difficult.”
According to Afghan military analyst Kabir Darwish, “the Afghan air force does not have sufficient capacity to replace the United States”.
A number of smaller bases have already been handed over to Afghan forces.
The airfield was once the second largest base for U.S. and international troops in Afghanistan and the first airfield where U.S. forces were stationed after the fall of the Taliban in 2001.
It was also the center of America’s largest special forces drone operation. At its peak, the base had approximately 26,000 US and NATO personnel.
For years, the military has been steadily decreasing its presence there, accelerated after Washington struck a deal with the Taliban last year to withdraw completely from Afghanistan in exchange for security guarantees.
But the United States missed the May 1 deadline, extending it until September 11 – a move that angered the Taliban.
Although fighting between US forces and the Taliban has ceased since last year’s landmark agreement, battles rage daily between Afghan government forces and the militants.
On Saturday, a series of explosions outside a girls’ school in Kabul killed more than 50 people, most of them teenage girls.
Ceasefires in the past have largely held up, in what is widely seen as an exercise by the Taliban leadership to prove they control the myriad factions across the country that make up the radical movement.