KABUL -- The "Islamic State of Iraq and Syria" (ISIS) claimed responsibility for a gruesome suicide bombing targeting the Tabayan cultural centre in Kabul Thursday (December 28) that left more than 40 people dead and dozens wounded.
About 100 people had gathered at the Shia centre to mark the 38th anniversary of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. It is located in western Kabul, in the same building as affiliated Afghan Voice Agency (AVA), an anti-ISIS media outlet.
Interior Ministry deputy spokesman Nasrat Rahimi told AFP that the initial suicide bombing of the attack -- the worst since a bombing at a Shia mosque in October that killed more than 50 worshippers -- was followed by two smaller bomb blasts as survivors were leaving the scene.
"At least 41 people have been killed and 84 others injured in today's attack on Tabayan cultural centre in Kabul," Waheed Majroh, spokesperson for the Afghan Health Ministry, told Salaam Times.
Thursday's attack saw chaotic scenes at the nearby Isteqlal Hospital, where ambulances and police pickups brought the victims, including women and children. Many of them had suffered severe burns to their faces and bodies, as well as shrapnel wounds, AFP reporters said.
Visibly distressed relatives searched for their loved ones inside the medical facility. Some were so distraught they crawled on the ground pulling their hair.
AFP reporters saw more than a dozen badly burned bodies lying on the floor in a room inside the hospital and wooden coffins being delivered so families could take away the remains of loved ones.
A journalist with AVA, which is located above the cultural centre, said that more than 100 people were at the event in the building's basement, with a number of AVA staff among the victims.
The assault comes days after a suicide bomber killed at least six civilians in an attack on December 25 near an Afghan intelligence agency compound in the city, which was also claimed by ISIS.
Victims' faces unrecognisable
"Every Thursday from 9am to 12pm, cultural, religious and social events are held at the Tabayan centre," said Reza, an eyewitness whose face was burned in the explosion.
"Today about 200 people, mostly youth, gathered on Jadi 6 [December 27] and suddenly there was an explosion among the participants," he told Salaam Times. "I was unconscious for a few minutes. When I got up, I saw bodies were lying in smoke and fire."
"There were three explosions at the centre, one inside the hall and two others were ... far away from the centre's main gate," Sayed Akbar, another witness, told Salaam Times.
"Most of the casualties were young people whose faces weren't recognisable," he said.
Mohammad Hasan Rezayee, a university student who was also at the ceremony, told TOLONews he had suffered burns to his face in the blast.
"We were inside the hall in the second row when there was an explosion behind us. I did not see the bomber," he said from his hospital bed. "After the blast, there were fire and smoke inside the building. Everyone was pleading for help."
A 'heinous' attack
The attack drew international condemnation, with NATO's Resolute Support Mission in Afghanistan describing it as "heinous".
A statement from German Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel said "we cry" with the victims of the bombing.
Afghan Interior Ministry spokesperson Najib Danish vowed to "avenge the blood" of the victims, many of whom were students.
Security in Kabul has been ramped up since May 31 when a massive truck bomb ripped through the diplomatic quarter, killing some 150 people and wounding about 400 others -- mostly civilians. No group has yet claimed responsibility for that bombing.
ISIS has claimed most of the attacks on Shia worshippers in the past two years as it seeks to stir up sectarian violence in the country.
The Afghan media have also previously been targeted by militants, underlining the risks faced by journalists in the country.
[Sulaiman from Kabul contributed to this report.]