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Karzai: Toll from attacks on Afghan Shiites now 80

- Associated Press - Sunday, December 11, 2011

KABUL, Afghanistan (AP) — The death toll from last week's rare sectarian attacks on Shiite Muslims in Afghanistan has risen to at least 80, the country's president said Sunday.

President Hamid Karzai said during a speech in Kabul that the Dec. 6 bombings were carried out by people seeking to undermine peace and stability. An extremist group in neighboring Pakistan has claimed responsibility for the deadliest of the attacks, a suicide bombing that targeted Shiite crowds gathered around a shrine in Kabul.

Mr. Karzai did not say if the new toll included only those killed in that attack or whether it also included those killed in another blast on the same day targeting Shiites in the northern city of Mazar-i-Sarif. The earlier casualty toll was 56 killed and more than 160 wounded in Kabul, and four killed in Mazar-i-Sharif.

The Pakistani extremist group Lashkar-e-Jhangvi says it carried out the Kabul bombing, raising fears it was trying to stoke Shiite-Sunni tensions in Afghanistan. The group is blamed for many attacks on Shiites in its own country.

Afghanistan, by contrast, largely has been spared the kind of sectarian violence in which civilians are targeted simply for their membership in a particular religious group. The Dec. 6 attacks suggest that at least some militant groups may have shifted tactics, taking aim at ethnic minorities such as the Hazara, who are largely Shiite and support the Afghan government and its Western partners.

On Saturday the U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan, Ryan Crocker, said it was unlikely the attack would open up a new sectarian front in the decade-long war.

"I do not see this turning into a sectarian conflict just looking at the reactions on the part of the Shia leadership calling for calm," he said.

Taliban spokesman Zabiullah Mujahid said Sunday that the Afghan insurgent group's leadership had recently gathered in a shura, or council, to condemn the attacks. The Taliban also strongly condemned the two bombings on the day they took place.

Mr. Mujahid blamed the attacks on the "foreign occupation" of the country but was not specific. In an email sent to the media, he said the Taliban leadership called for the unity of Afghans and had ordered all its fighters to be on the alert and "prevent these kinds of attacks."

Islamabad is accused of tolerating some militant groups on its soil, but the government has emphatically denied that it has any links to Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, saying the group has been targeted by its military.

Mr. Karzai's speech touched on another major challenge facing Afghanistan: corruption. Specifically, he asked the United States to send home the former head of Afghanistan's central bank, Abdul Qadir Fitrat.

Afghanistan has issued an arrest warrant for Mr. Fitrat, who along with other officials at the central bank faces allegations of failing to act on warnings about widespread corruption at Kabul Bank. The institution nearly collapsed last year because of mismanagement and questionable lending practices.

Mr. Fitrat fled to Northern Virginia in June after claiming he had received threats to his life in connection with the Kabul Bank scandal.

"The government of the United States should cooperate and hand him over to us. Bring Fitrat and hand him over to Afghanistan to make clear who is to blame. But our hand can't reach to America," Mr. Karzai said in the speech, made during an event marking U.N.-sponsored International Anti-corruption Day.

He said Mr. Fitrat held American citizenship.

Mr. Fitrat said at the time of the Kabul Bank scandal that he and other central bank officials charged with overseeing the nation's financial system were being made scapegoats, while the Afghan government refused to charge politically connected individuals involved in making or receiving hundreds of millions of dollars in questionable loans.

Kabul Bank became a symbol of the country's deep-rooted corruption.

Afghanistan's financial system appears to be recovering slowly from the aftereffects of the near-collapse, which required a massive central bank bailout.

Last month, the IMF approved a three-year, $133.6 million loan for Afghanistan because it found the government had taken steps to address governance and accountability issues that surfaced during the Kabul Bank crisis. The decision reassured international donors, many whom withheld aid while waiting for the IMF decision.

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