Prague, 1 June 2005 (RFE/RL) -- RFE/RL's Kandahar correspondent Reshtim Qadiri was standing outside of the crowded Abdurrab Akhondzada Mosque in Kandahar to report on the mourning ceremony of a slain Islamic cleric when a suicide bomber blew himself up.
Within minutes, Qadiri managed to push her way through the fleeing crowd and make it into the small room at the front of the mosque where the explosion occurred. She found a nightmarish vision of death: "I'm in the area [just at the mosque's entrance], and this place is covered with blood and body parts. The scene here is [horrific and] almost surreal."
"These are people who are enemies of Islam as well as the enemies of Afghanistan. This is the first time a suicide attack has been committed inside a mosque. And people who have come to pray have been killed."
Afghan Interior Ministry spokesman Lutfullah Mashal confirmed that the ministry's new security chief in Kabul was killed.
"As a result of the suicide attack, [at least] 17 people were killed and an additional 36 people were injured," Mashal said. "And General Akram Khakrizwal -- the security chief of Kabul -- is among the martyred."
Naseer Ahmad Niazi, the director of Kandahar's Mmirwais Hospital said later that the bodies of at least 20 people had been brought to his facility by the early afternoon. Afghan officials at the scene of the explosion said they fear the death toll eventually could top 50.
RFE/RL's Qadiri spoke to witnesses who had been injured by the blast and who said Khakrizwal appeared to be intentionally targeted by the suicide bomber.
"According to eyewitness accounts, commander Akram Khakrizwal -- who was the [Interior Ministry's new] security chief in Kabul -- had just entered the mosque with his bodyguards [when the attack occurred]," Qadiri said. "The suicide bomber was dressed like one of [his] bodyguards. And as [Khakrizwal] entered, the suicide bomber went in with them. It was when Khakrizwal paused to take off his shoes that this person jumped under [him] and blew himself up."
Khakrizwal was a native of Kandahar who had worked as the Interior Ministry's security chief in the northern Afghan city of Mazar-e Sharif during the past two years. He had been promoted to the Kabul security post about two months ago.
Afghan officials tell RFE/RL that two of President Karzai's brothers -- Ahmad Wali and Shah Wali -- also were due to attend today's mourning ceremony but had not yet arrived when the blast occurred.
Khakrizwal returned to Kandahar today to attend a mourning ceremony at the mosque for Mawlavi Abdullah Fayyaz -- the chairman of the Kandahar Clerics' Council who was shot dead by a suspected Taliban militant on 29 May. Fayaz had been a strong supporter of Afghan President Hamid Karzai and had recently issued an edict calling on Afghans not to support the Taliban.
An Afghan man claiming to be a spokesman for the Taliban phoned news organizations in Kabul today to claim responsibility for the attack. But Interior Ministry spokesman Mashal told RFE/RL that the claim has not been confirmed.
"The investigation is underway. It is not clear [who is behind this attack]," Mashal said. "But one thing is clear. These are people who are enemies of Islam as well as the enemies of Afghanistan. This is the first time that a suicide attack has been committed inside a mosque. And people who have come to pray have been killed."
Correspondents say a suicide bomb attack on a mosque -- particularly during a mourning ceremony for a Muslim cleric -- is a cause for outrage among ordinary Afghans.
Witnesses who were injured in the blast were reluctant to give their names. But they told RFE/RL's Qadiri just moments after the explosion that the attack had the hallmarks of the "enemies of Afghanistan" -- an expression used by Karzai and his supporters to describe the Taliban and Al-Qaeda fighters.
"This morning I went to the mosque to attend the mourning ceremony for Mawlavi Fayyaz," said one eyewitness. "As I was entering the mosque an explosion took place. My shawl and clothes were thrown up in the air. I received a few injuries on my hands and legs. I can't hear anything right now. But I can tell you that this is not Islam. This is the killing of Muslim brothers, of innocent people. This is done by the servants of the foreigners who are against Afghanistan's security."
Mawlavi Kashaf, a Muslim cleric and member of Afghanistan's Supreme Court, condemned the attack as un-Islamic.
"These suicide and terrorist attacks are all rejected from a humanitarian point of view," Kashaf said. "They are rejected by Islam. Those who are against security in Afghanistan do such things. They don't want security and stability to come to this country."
Afghan officials also say a prominent former mujahedin commander from Kandahar named Mullah Naqiebullah was inside the mosque and injured by the blast. Naqiebullah fought against the Taliban as a member of the former Northern Alliance and is a supporter of Karzai's central government. There were no immediate details on the extent of his injuries.
(Contributors to this report include RFE/RL Afghan correspondent Reshtin Qadiri in Kandahar and RFE/RL's Radio Free Afghanistan staffers Hashem Mohmand, Sharifa Sharif, and Haifizullah Asefi; and RFE/RL correspondent Golnaz Esfandiari.)