At least 25 people were killed Wednesday in an attack on a Sikh-Hindu temple in Afghanistan's capital where worshippers were offering morning prayers, the latest brutal assault claimed by the Islamic State 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.
Witness Raju Singh Sonny told AFP that 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 nation.
Interior ministry spokesman Tariq Arian said the assault started around 7:45 am (0315 GMT). 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.
The Islamic State (IS) group claimed responsibility, according to the SITE intelligence group. The Taliban denied any involvement.
Anarkali Kaur Honaryar, a Sikh member of the Afghan parliament, told AFP about 150 people had been inside the temple, where several families also live and worshippers gather for morning prayers.
"Some people inside the temple are hiding and their phones are off," Honaryar said while the attack was ongoing.
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.
"Such cowardly attacks on the places of religious worship of the minority community, especially at this time of (the coronavirus) pandemic, is reflective of the diabolical mindset of the perpetrators and their backers," the Indian foreign ministry said in a statement. Sikhism and Hinduism are rooted in India.
Afghan leaders' 'failure'
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 jihadist 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 $1 billion in 2021, with further cuts possible.
The US and the Taliban signed a deal last month that was supposed to pave the way for talks between the Afghan leadership and the insurgents, but with Kabul unable to agree who is in government, the talks have stalled.
Coronavirus is continuing to spread across Afghanistan. Officially there are 74 confirmed cases and two deaths, but many observers fear the number is far higher.
The impoverished country is testing few people, "social distancing" is an abstract concept for an illiterate population accustomed to crowding into mosques and large family gatherings, and thousands of people have returned from pilgrimages to coronavirus-hit Iran in recent weeks.