A suicide attack that killed at least 62 people and wounded more than 140 at a mosque in Afghanistan on Friday has been claimed by ISIS. Locals speaking to AFP said the final toll could rise towards 100 because many of the wounded are in a critical condition and health services are overwhelmed.
The militant group made the announcement on its Telegram channel.
The mosque in the north-eastern Kunduz province was packed with Shiite worshippers, Afghanistan's state-run Bakhtar news agency reported.
The blast occurred in Kunduz city, the provincial capital, where militants from ISIS have a long history of attacking the Shiite minority.
Dost Mohammad Obaida, the deputy police chief for Kunduz province, said the attack may have been carried out by a suicide bomber who had mingled with worshippers in the mosque.
“I assure our Shiite brothers that the Taliban are prepared to ensure their safety,” Mr Obaida said. An investigation was under way, he said.
The death toll is one of the highest since US and Nato forces left Afghanistan at the end of August and the Taliban took control of the country.
The Taliban have been the target of a series of deadly attacks by rival ISIS militants, including shooting ambushes and an explosion at a mosque in the capital, Kabul.
Friday's explosion in Kunduz took place during prayers at the Gozar-e-Sayed Abad mosque.
The Friday noon prayers are the highlight of the Muslim religious week, and mosques are typically crowded. Witness Ali Reza said he was praying at the time of the explosion and saw many casualties.
It was the latest of several attacks in recent weeks, including one at a mosque in Kabul, some of which were also claimed by ISIS.
The attacks underscore the security challenges facing the Taliban, who took over the country in August and have since carried out operations against ISIS cells in Kabul.
“This afternoon, an explosion took place in a mosque of our Shiite compatriots … as a result of which a number of our compatriots were martyred and wounded,” Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid said on Twitter.
Photos and video footage from the scene showed rescuers carrying a body wrapped in a blanket from the mosque to an ambulance. The stairs at the entrance of the mosque were covered in blood. Debris from the blast covered the floor and the mosque’s lofty ceiling was charred black.
A resident of the area, Hussaindad Rezayee, said he rushed to the mosque as soon as the explosion went off. “I was busy at home doing construction work, and when the prayers started, the explosion happened,” he said. “I came to look for my relatives, the mosque was full.”
The Taliban leadership are grappling with a growing threat from the local ISIS affiliate, known as the Islamic State in Khorasan.
ISIS militants have stepped up attacks aimed at their rivals, including two recent deadly bombings in Kabul.
ISIS also declared war on Afghanistan’s minority Shiites and has taken responsibility for some of the worst attacks against the community, including attacks on their mosques in Kabul and the western province of Herat.
The UN mission in Afghanistan condemned Friday’s attack, saying it was “part of a disturbing pattern of violence” aimed at religious institutions.
Previously, ISIS had claimed a bombing on Sunday outside Kabul’s Eid Gah Mosque that killed at least five civilians. Another attack on a madrassa, a religious school, in Khost province on Wednesday was not claimed.
The local ISIS affiliate also claimed responsibility for the August 26 bombing that killed at least 169 Afghans and 13 US military personnel outside Kabul airport in the final days of the American withdrawal from Afghanistan.
Since the US departure, ISIS attacks have been mostly in eastern Afghanistan – the regional base for the group's affiliate – and in Kabul.
In northern Kunduz province, ethnic Hazaras, who are mostly Shiites, make up about 6 per cent of the province’s population of nearly a million people. The province also has a large ethnic Uzbek population that has been targeted for recruitment by ISIS, which is closely aligned with the militant Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan.
Friday’s attack, claimed by ISIS, will be worrying for Afghanistan’s northern Central Asian neighbours and Russia, which has been courting the Taliban for years as an ally against creeping ISIS influence in the region.