Gun­man tar­gets Sikhs in Kabul

Is­lamic State group claims re­spon­si­bil­ity for at­tack that left 25 dead

Toronto Star - - WORLD - TAMEEM AKHGAR AND RAHIM FAIEZ

KABUL— A lone Is­lamic State gun­man ram­paged through a Sikh house of wor­ship in the heart of the Afghan cap­i­tal, Kabul, on Wed­nes­day, killing 25 wor­ship­pers and wound­ing eight, Afghanista­n’s In­te­rior Min­istry said. The gun­man held many of the wor­ship­pers hostage for sev­eral hours as Afghan spe­cial forces, helped by in­ter­na­tional troops, tried to clear the build­ing. At least one of the dead was a child.

Within hours, the Is­lamic State group claimed re­spon­si­bil­ity for the at­tack.

As the siege ended, the Afghan spe­cial forces res­cued at least 80 wor­ship­pers who had been trapped in­side the Sikh house of wor­ship, known as a gur­d­wara, as the gun­man lobbed grenades and fired his au­to­matic ri­fle into the crowd, the min­istry said.

Ear­lier, Afghan law­maker Narindra Singh Khalsa said he rushed over to help af­ter re­ceiv­ing a call from a per­son in­side the gur­d­wara telling him of the at­tack. There were about 150 peo­ple in­side at the time, he said.

The SITE In­tel­li­gence Group, which tracks mil­i­tant post­ings and groups, said IS claimed re­spon­si­bil­ity for the at­tack on the group’s Aa­maq me­dia arm. The com­mu­niqué iden­ti­fied the gun­man as In­dian na­tional Abu Khalid al-Hindi, who car­ried out the at­tack to avenge the plight of Mus­lims liv­ing un­der se­vere re­stric­tions in In­di­an­ruled Kash­mir, Hindu In­dia’s only Mus­lim dom­i­nated state.

At a Kabul hos­pi­tal, Mo­han Singh, who was in the gur­d­wara when the at­tack be­gan, said he first heard the sound of gun­shots and ducked for cover un­der a ta­ble. Later he heard ex­plo­sions, adding that he be­lieves they were hand grenades. He was wounded when parts of the ceil­ing fell on him.

In pho­to­graphs shared by the In­te­rior Min­istry, about a dozen chil­dren were seen be­ing rushed out of the gur­d­wara by Afghan spe­cial forces, many of them bare­foot and cry­ing.

As news of the at­tack first broke on Wed­nes­day, Tal­iban spokesman Zabi­hul­lah Mu­ja­hed tweeted that the Tal­iban were not in­volved. Ear­lier this month, Afghanista­n’s IS af­fil­i­ate struck a gath­er­ing of mi­nor­ity Shi­ite Mus­lims in Kabul, killing 32 peo­ple.

Afghanista­n’s na­tional se­cu­rity ad­viser, Ham­dul­lah Mo­hib, con­demned the at­tack in a tweet, while neigh­bour­ing Pak­istan and In­dia both is­sued state­ments of con­dem­na­tion. Pak­istan de­scribed the at­tack as “heinous.”

“Such de­spi­ca­ble acts have no po­lit­i­cal, re­li­gious or moral jus­ti­fi­ca­tion and must be re­jected out­right,” the Pak­istani For­eign Min­istry state­ment said.

In­dia said the at­tack was par­tic­u­larly egre­gious com­ing as

Afghanista­n sought to deal with the grow­ing coro­n­avirus pandemic.

“Such cow­ardly at­tacks on the places of re­li­gious wor­ship of the mi­nor­ity com­mu­nity,” In­dia said, re­flect the “di­abol­i­cal mind­set of the per­pe­tra­tors and their back­ers.”

The United Nations As­sis­tance Mis­sion in Afghanista­n (UNAMA) on Wed­nes­day called for a “re­duc­tion of vi­o­lence lead­ing to a cease­fire” by all com­bat­ants in Afghanista­n.

Sikhs have suf­fered wide­spread dis­crim­i­na­tion in the con­ser­va­tive Mus­lim country and have also been tar­geted by Is­lamic ex­trem­ists. Un­der Tal­iban rule in the late 1990s, they were asked to iden­tify them­selves by wear­ing yel­low arm­bands, but the rule was not en­forced. In re­cent years, large num­bers of Sikhs and Hin­dus have sought asy­lum in In­dia, which has a Hindu ma­jor­ity and a large Sikh pop­u­la­tion.

In July 2018, a con­voy of Sikhs and Hin­dus was at­tacked by an Is­lamic State suicide bomber as they were on their way to meet Afghan Pres­i­dent Ashraf Ghani in the eastern city of Jalal­abad, the cap­i­tal of Nan­garhar prov­ince. Nine­teen peo­ple were killed in that at­tack.

Else­where in Afghanista­n, at least eight civil­ians were killed in south­ern Hel­mand prov­ince when their ve­hi­cle hit a road­side mine, said Omer Zwak, spokesman for the pro­vin­cial gov­er­nor. The area is un­der Tal­iban con­trol but no one took im­me­di­ate re­spon­si­bil­ity.

In a sep­a­rate in­ci­dent in north­ern Kapisa prov­ince, in­sur­gents opened fire on a ve­hi­cle, killing three civil­ians and a se­cu­rity of­fi­cer, said Shahiq Shoresh Ko­his­tani, spokesman for the pro­vin­cial po­lice chief.

Wash­ing­ton signed a deal with the Tal­iban on Feb. 29 and has be­gun to with­draw its troops in keep­ing with the agree­ment but it has run into trou­ble as Afghanista­n’s po­lit­i­cal lead­er­ship bat­tles re­lent­lessly for power. Two pres­i­dents sit in Kabul. Even a sur­prise visit on Mon­day by U.S. Sec­re­tary of State Mike Pom­peo, who threat­ened to with­hold $1 bil­lion (U.S.) in aid if they didn’t “get their act to­gether,” could break the im­passe.

A glim­mer of hope ap­peared late Wed­nes­day with a tweet from Tal­iban po­lit­i­cal spokesman So­hail Sha­heen. He said the re­lease of Tal­iban pris­on­ers — a must be­fore in­tra-Afghan ne­go­ti­a­tions can be­gin — could start by March 31. The de­ci­sion came af­ter a four-hour video con­fer­ence be­tween the Tal­iban, the gov­ern­ment, Wash­ing­ton’s peace en­voy Zal­may Khalilzad and the Qatari gov­ern­ment rep­re­sen­ta­tive. The Tal­iban main­tain a po­lit­i­cal of­fice in the Mid­dle Eastern State of Qatar.

RAHMAT GUL THE ASSOCIATED PRESS

Fam­ily mem­bers cry af­ter an at­tack tar­get­ing Sikhs in Kabul, Afghanista­n, on Wed­nes­day.

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