KABUL (Reuters) - U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said on Saturday Washington remained committed to peace and stability in Afghanistan as police searched for bodies in the rubble of a mosque in eastern Nangarhar province where bomb blasts killed at least 69 people.
The explosives that went off during Friday prayers were placed inside the mosque in the Jawdara area of the Haska Mena district. On Friday, local officials had reported the number of dead at 62 and around 50 wounded.
“The United States remains committed to peace and stability in Afghanistan, and will continue to fight against terrorism,” Pompeo said in a statement. “We stand by the people of Afghanistan who only want peace and a future free from these abhorrent acts of violence.”
Sohrab Qaderi, a member of Nangarhar’s provincial council, said the mosque, with a capacity of more than 150 worshippers at a time, was full of people when the bombs exploded.
“Bodies of 69 people, including children and elders, have been handed to their relatives,” Qaderi said, adding that more bodies could be lying under the rubble.
No group has claimed responsibility but the government blamed Taliban insurgents, who are fighting to reimpose strict Islamic law after they were ousted from power in 2001 by U.S.-led forces.
Suhail Shaheen, a spokesman for the Taliban, denied the group was responsible. In a tweet, he said that witnesses to the attack said it was a mortar attack by government forces.
One of the wounded, Gulabistan, 45, said the mosque was full when the explosion happened.
“Mullah already started prayers and reciting verses of holy Koran, when a huge boom happened, then all around me it got dark, the only thing I remember is females’ voices and then I found myself in the hospital,” Gulabistan said.
He said he had been told his son was among the dead while his brother and two nephews had been wounded and were in hospital.
A Reuters reporter saw 67 freshly excavated graves for the victims in Jawdara village.
The European Union said the attack aimed to undermine hopes for peace and reconciliation in Afghanistan.
The Taliban and Islamic State fighters are actively operating in parts of Nangarhar, which shares a border with Pakistan in the east.
A United Nations report this week said 4,313 civilians were killed and wounded in Afghanistan’s war between July and September.
Reporting by Abdul Qadir Sediqi in Kabul and Ahmad Sultan in Nangarhar; additional reporting by Lucia Mutikani in Washington; Editing by Frances Kerry and Rosalba O'Brien