Mosque blast kills at least 18 in Afghanistan

Pro-Taliban imam among the dozens dead and wounded in a suicide attack on the Guzargah Mosque in western Herat city.

An explosion at a mosque in the city of Herat in western Afghanistan killed a high-profile pro-Taliban scholar as well as more than a dozen civilians.

Images on social media on Friday showed what appeared to be blood-stained bodies scattered around the mosque compound. There was no immediate claim of responsibility.

“Eighteen people were martyred in the incident and 23 others were wounded,” Hameedullah Motawakel, spokesman for the governor of Herat province, told reporters.

The blast went off in the Guzargah Mosque during Friday noon prayers.

“[Imam] Mujib Rahman Ansari with some of his guards and civilians have been killed on their way toward the mosque,” said Herat’s police spokesman Mahmoud Rasooli. “One of the suicide bombers blew himself up while kissing his hands.”

Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid said the perpetrators behind the bombing would be punished.

“The country’s strong and courageous religious scholar was martyred in a brutal attack,” Mujahid said on Twitter.

Dead and wounded

Taliban official Abdul Nafi Takor confirmed Friday’s explosion and said there were dead and wounded but said he had no further details.

Mujib Rahman Ansari had spoken strongly in defence of the Taliban at a large gathering of thousands of scholars and elders organised by the group in late June, condemning anyone who stood against its administration.

Ansari is the second pro-Taliban scholar killed in an explosion in less than a month, after Rahimullah Haqqani died in a suicide attack at his madrassa in Kabul. Haqqani was known for angry speeches against the armed group ISIL (ISIS), which later claimed responsibility for his death.

The Taliban say they have improved security in the country since taking power approximately a year ago but there have been several blasts in recent months, some of them going after busy mosques during prayers.

Afghan journalist and political analyst Lutfullah Lutf, said this is not the first time that a religious scholar has been a target of an attack.

“In the last few years, any religious scholar who has enjoyed support across Afghanistan … or supported the government … [is] the potential target of such attacks,” Lutf told Al Jazeera.

Previous mosque attacks have been claimed by ISIL, which has carried out a series of assaults against religious and ethnic minorities in Afghanistan, as well as Taliban targets.

The Herat mosque draws followers of Sunni Islam, the dominant stream in Afghanistan that is also followed by the Taliban.

ISIL has launched several suicide attacks during Friday prayers with a focus on targeting Shia Muslims.