Dozens of people have been killed in violence across Afghanistan, including in a suicide bombing in Kabul targeting a protest by members of the mainly Shi’ite Hazara minority, officials say.
The Islamic State (IS) militant group claimed responsibility for the suicide blast on November 12 that killed at least six people and wounded 20 others in the center of the capital, where hundreds of people were protesting the government’s failure to protect the Hazara community from Taliban attacks.
The explosion rocked the city as fighting raged in the central province of Ghazni, where Afghan forces and pro-government militias have been battling the Taliban for the past week.
Officials said on November 12 that 25 Afghan security personnel were killed in Ghazni's predominately Hazara districts of Malistan and Jaghori. The Taliban also attacked a third district, Khas Oruzgan, in neighboring Oruzgan Province two weeks ago.
The Taliban offensive in the three predominately Hazara districts has left dozens of government troops, pro-government Hazara militia men, and Taliban militants dead and forced hundreds of civilians to flee their homes.
In the western province of Farah, at least 37 local police were killed when Taliban fighters overran several security checkpoints, regional officials said on November 12.
In a statement, the IS militant group said it targeted a gathering of Shi'ites. The extremist Sunni group considers Shi'ites as heretics and has frequently targeted them in recent years.
Afghanistan's main intelligence agency, the National Directorate of Security (NDS), said in a statement that the bomber was on foot and detonated his suicide vest before reaching the protesters.
Interior Ministry spokesman Najib Danesh told RFE/RL that civilians and security personnel deployed to secure the city during the protest were among the dead.
No group claimed responsibility for the attack, although the Taliban and the Islamic State (IS) militant groups have been blamed for similar attacks in the past.
The blast occurred near a security checkpoint near the Istiqlal high school in central Kabul, close to the area where ministry buildings and the Presidential Palace are located.
The Afghan president's office said protesters ended their demonstration after President Ashraf Ghani addressed the crowd and promised to send reinforcements to the besieged districts.
Hazara Demand Protection
Hundreds of people had rallied for a second day in front of the Presidential Palace to protest against the government's inaction in sending reinforcements to the three districts under siege in the provinces of Ghazni and Oruzgan.
“The situation in the districts of Jahjori, Malistan, and Khas Oruzgan is critical,” an unnamed protester told RFE/RL. “These areas need urgent air support and reinforcements.”
“We want the government and the world to know what’s happening there,” another protester told RFE/RL. “How long can this cruelty and death go on?”
Officials said that the Taliban killed 15 civilians and 10 members of the special forces in Ghazni on November 11, after the government said it had sent special forces backed by air strikes to the districts under attack.
There have been fears that the violence could be rooted in ethnic or sectarian differences, pitting the Hazara against the Taliban, a predominately Sunni, ethnic Pashtun group.
The Taliban was accused of committing human rights violations against Hazara during their 1996-2001 rule.
In the western province of Farah, at least 37 members of the Afghan security forces were killed in overnight attacks by Taliban fighters on checkpoints that triggered hours of fighting, local officials said on November 12.
The spike in violence comes as visiting U.S. special envoy Zakmay Khalilzad held talks with Afghan President Ashraf Ghani on November 11 in his latest round of meetings aimed at convincing the Taliban to take part in peace talks with Kabul to end the decades-long war in Afghanistan.
Khalilzad, a former U.S. ambassador to Kabul, is also scheduled to visit Pakistan, the United Arab Emirates, and Qatar, where the Taliban has a political office.
A recent U.S. government watchdog report said Kabul's control of Afghanistan had slipped in recent months as local forces made little or no progress against the Taliban.
The U.S. Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction, citing NATO's Resolute Support mission, said this summer's casualty toll for Afghan forces had been worse than ever.
However, Ghani denied on November 12 that the Taliban is winning. Speaking by video link from Kabul to an audience at the School of Advanced International Studies at John Hopkins University in Washington, Ghani said the Afghan state is not at risk of collapse and reiterated his government's intent to seek a negotiated peace.
"The Taliban are not in a winning position," Ghani said.