AFGHANISTAN'S Shiite minority has been targeted in a rare sectarian attack, two co-ordinated blasts that killed about 50 people yesterday.
The first bombing, a massive suicide blast at the gates to the Abul Fazl Shrine in the heart of Kabul's old city, killed as many as 48 people marking the religious holiday of Ashura.
A second explosive, hidden on a bicycle and detonated near a mosque in the northern city of Mazar-i-Sharif, killed four people. About 70 were injured.
Both blasts, about noon yesterday, were attacks on shrines of Shiite Muslims. Pilgrims were observing the holy day of Ashura, which marks the death of the grandson of the prophet Muhammad.
Shiites were banned from commemorating Ashura in public under the Taliban, and its observance is a source of tension between Shiites and the Sunni majority.
But Afghanistan has largely been spared the sectarian violence that has plagued neighbouring Pakistan.
A third bomb, detonated on a motorcycle in the restive southern city of Kandahar, injured six people. But this attack was not believed to be linked to Ashura.
In Kabul, the crowd at the gates to the Abul Fazl Shrine was packed shoulder-to-shoulder as hundreds of men, women and children gathered for commemorations.
Mustafa, a shopkeeper who witnessed the blast, said he and his mother were delivering food to the worshippers. Two groups of 150 to 200 people from Kabul had just prayed at the shrine and left.
Another group of more than 100 from Logar province was entering when the explosion occurred. He said a suicide bomber at the end of the line of worshippers from Logar blew himself up near one of the gates.
''It was very loud. My ears went deaf and I was blown three metres,'' Mustafa told the Associated Press.
''There was smoke and red blood on the floor of the shrine. There were people lying everywhere.''
Roads in the capital were sealed off as security forces feared secondary blasts. The death toll continued to rise through the afternoon and evening.
''Forty-eight civilians [were] killed and more than 100 wounded, including women and children. It's not clear yet who carried out the attack,'' said Mohammad Zahir, chief of Kabul's criminal investigation department.
¦Afghan President Hamid Karzai, in Bonn attending a conference on the future of his country, is secretly exploring ways to extend his time in power beyond 2014, when his second and final term ends, despite his public comments to the contrary.
A German intelligence report suggests that he has consulted three senior figures on his plans.
According to a report by Germany's BND foreign intelligence service shown to Britain's Daily Telegraph newspaper, Mr Karzai discussed these options with Atta Mohammed, the governor of Balkh, a province where Germany's Afghan presence is concentrated.
He has also consulted Yusuf Qanuni, a former speaker of parliament, and Mohammed Fahim, a vice-president, about becoming his hand-picked successor. All three are ethnic Tajiks who would prove valuable partners to Mr Karzai, a Pashtun.
The White House, which is frustrated over endemic corruption and Mr Karzai's unpredictability, is likely to resist any attempt to prolong his time in office. With AGENCIES