By Ahmad Sultan
JALALABAD, Afghanistan (Reuters) – An explosion hit the center of the eastern Afghan city of Jalalabad on Sunday, killing at least 20 people, including several members of the small Sikh minority, provincial government officials said.
The blast, hours after President Ashraf Ghani had opened a hospital in Jalalabad, damaged shops and buildings around Mukhaberat square in the city, governor’s spokesman Attaullah Khogyani said.
A politician representing the minority Sikh community was killed in the blast. Officials said Awtar Singh Khalsa, who had planned to stand in October’s parliamentary elections, was dead.
Ghulam Sanayi Stanekzai, police chief of Nangarhar, said the explosion was caused by a suicide bomber who targeted a vehicle carrying members of the Sikh minority who were traveling to meet the president.
Islamic State claimed the attack in a statement via its online Amaq news agency, but provided no evidence for the claim.
Officials said at least 10 of the dead were Sikhs.
Afghanistan is an overwhelmingly Muslim nation but a small number of Hindus and Sikhs remain in the country.
One seat in the Afghan parliament is reserved for a member of the country’s small Sikh and Hindu communities.
But increasing numbers of Sikhs and Hindus have moved to India, their spiritual homeland, due to persecution and repeated threats.
Officials at the Indian Embassy in Kabul confirmed the death of ten Sikhs and condemned “the terrorist attack” in Jalalabad.
“The attack underlines the need for a united global fight against international terrorism without discrimination and accountability of those who support terrorists in any manner,” the Indian Embassy said on Twitter.
Inaamullah Miakhel, a spokesman for the provincial health department of Nangarhar, said 20 people were wounded.
Officials said the casualty total might have been even higher had much of the city not been blocked off for Ghani’s visit. He was not in the area when the blast occurred.
There was no immediate claim of responsibility for the blast, the latest in a series to have hit Jalalabad, the provincial capital of Nangarhar, where Islamic State fighters have established a strong presence in recent years.
The attack underlined the fragile security situation in Afghanistan after last month’s brief ceasefire between government forces and the Taliban.
The three-day truce did not include Islamic State, which fights both government forces and the Taliban and which has shown no sign of letting up its campaign of violence.
(Additional reporting by Qadir Sediqi and Rupam Jain in KABUL, Ali Abdelaty in CAIRO, editing by Jane Merriman, Louise Heavens, William Maclean)