KABUL, Afghanistan (AP) — Afghan President Hamid Karzai confronted Pakistan on Wednesday, saying a militant group based there was behind a suicide bombing at a Shiite shrine in Kabul that killed 56 people during commemorations of a holy day.
Already under U.S. pressure to do more to battle extremism, Pakistan countered by demanding that Karzai provide evidence to back up his claim.
"We do not discuss such matters through media," Pakistani Foreign Ministry spokesman Abdul Basit said, adding that Pakistan would encourage Kabul to share any evidence it has that the group in Pakistan was responsible.
The attack was Afghanistan's first major sectarian assault since the fall of the Taliban regime a decade ago. It raised fears the conflict is taking a dangerous new turn with some militant groups targeting ethnic minorities such as the Hazara, who are largely Shiite and support the Afghan government and its Western partners.
A man claiming to be from Lashkar-e-Jhangvi al-Alami, a Pakistan-based splinter group of Lashkar-e-Jhangvi that has carried out attacks against Shiite Muslims in Pakistan, has called various media outlets to claim responsibility for the Kabul bombing.
Karzai said he believed this claim, although he did not elaborate.
"We are investigating this issue and we are going to talk to the Pakistani government about it," Karzai told reporters as he visited a hospital where scores of people who had been wounded in the attack were being treated. He said the attack was not just an act of hate against Muslims, but against mankind. An American citizen was among those killed.
"Afghanistan cannot ignore the blood of all the victims of this incident, especially the children," Karzai said. The president cut short a European trip and returned to Kabul Wednesday morning because of the attack.
The Afghan leader has become increasingly bold in recent months in his criticism of Pakistan, which has a long history of backing insurgents in Afghanistan and trying to influence Afghan affairs from across the border. His stepped-up accusations come at the same time that U.S. relations with Pakistan have become increasingly antagonistic.
The Taliban condemned the attack.
Pakistani military spokesman Gen. Athar Abbas dismissed any suggestions that Lashkar-e-Jhangvi has links to the country's intelligence agencies or that the government was not doing everything it could to quash the group.
"Lashkar-e-Janghvi has declared war on the security forces in Pakistan," he told The Associated Press in an interview. He said the group has been implicated in some of the worst attacks on Pakistani security forces.
"They are being hunted down," he stressed.
Basit noted that the umbrella group, Lashkar-e-Jhangvi was banned in Pakistan.
The bombing at the shrine in Kabul and a second attack against a Shiite vehicle procession in the northern city of Mazar-i-Sharif that killed four people have raised worries that an already violence-wracked country might be on the verge of dipping into a divisive religious conflict as well.
The worshippers were commemorating the seventh-century death of Imam Hussein, the Prophet Muhammad's grandson, in a procession called Ashoura.
Afghanistan's Shiite community makes up about 20 percent of the nation's 30 million population. Hard-line Sunnis consider Shiites nonbelievers because their customs and traditions differ from the majority sect but Afghans have long divided themselves more by ethnic group than by religion.
Most attacks in Afghanistan are aimed at the government, international forces or those believed to be collaborating with them. These attacks have been more indiscriminate in recent years, with civilians regularly becoming the victims.
Underscoring that trend, 19 people, including five children, were killed and six others wounded when a roadside bomb struck a minibus in Helmand's volatile Sangin district — a Taliban stronghold, provincial spokesman Daoud Ahmadi said.
Back in Kabul, families gathered for funerals across the capital. In western Kabul, a group of mourners carried four bodies in a funeral procession through the city's largest Shiite cemetery. They carried pictures of the dead and shouted, "They are martyrs! We honor them!"
One of the mourners said no place felt safe anymore.
"Killing Muslims in front of a holy shrine, it is unbelievable," said Mohammad Nahim, 35. "Last night I told my children not to visit any shrines after dark. It is too dangerous." He said the graphic images of piled bodies came on the television as his family was eating dinner the night before and they all started crying.
"The man who owned the shop on my street corner, the man I bought vegetables from, he was killed in the attack," Nahim said.
A member of the city's Shiite council, meanwhile, said the attack showed no one can count on the government for protection.
"There have been so many attacks, even against government officials, and still they can't stop these things," said Mohaqeq Zada.
Nearly all the dead in Kabul were Shiites, though from a number of different ethnic groups. U.S. Embassy spokeswoman Megan Ellis said the American who died was not a government employee but would not give further details.
Associated Press writers Rahim Faiez in Kabul, Mirwais Khan in Kandahar and Kathy Gannon in Islamabad, Pakistan, contributed to this report.