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KABUL, Afghanistan -- A suicide bomber killed at least 57 people Sunday as they lined up at a government office in Kabul to register to vote, raising new concerns about the potential for violence to undermine Afghanistan's long-delayed parliamentary elections.

The attacker detonated his explosives as Afghan authorities distributed national identity cards in the western part of Kabul, the capital, part of a push by the government to get more people to register to vote. Wahid Majro, a spokesman for the Afghan Health Ministry, said the attack also wounded at least 119 others. "The tolls could still rise," he added.

Among the dead were 25 men, 22 women and eight children, while two bodies were not identifiable, Majro said.

The large explosion echoed across the city, shattering windows miles away from the attack site and damaging several nearby vehicles. Police blocked all roads to the blast site, with only ambulances allowed in. Local TV stations broadcast live footage of hundreds of distraught locals gathered at nearby hospitals seeking word about loved ones.

The Islamic State group claimed responsibility for the attack in a statement carried by its Aamaq news agency, saying it had targeted Shiite "apostates." Although the group's area of control and number of fighters in Afghanistan have largely been reduced through heavy airstrikes and commando operations, the militants still continue to claim attacks in urban centers.

The late-morning attack took place in the Dasht-i-Barchi neighborhood, which is dominated by minority Shiites from the Hazara ethnic group. The Islamic State has previously targeted mosques, shrines, schools and other sites in the same area.

The attack comes almost a month after another deadly attack by the Islamic State in which a suicide bomber carried out an attack near a Shiite shrine in Kabul that targeted attendees celebrating the Persian new year. That attack killed 31 people and wounded 65 others.

A statement issued by the president's office condemned Sunday's attack and quoted President Ashraf Ghani as saying such "terrorist attacks" would "never weaken the resolve and will of our people for wider participation in the democratic process."

Afghanistan will hold parliamentary elections in October, and voter registration started a week ago. The Oct. 20 polls for 249 seats in the National Assembly and hundreds of local council slots are scheduled to be followed by presidential elections next year.

Public interest in the October elections has been low because of voter fatigue after successive fraudulent elections and concerns about the safety threat to polling stations posed by suicide bombers and other violence from groups opposing the government.

At the scene of the attack, relatives of the victims tried to go past the police cordon for news of their loved ones. Windows of some of the nearby homes were blown out. Firefighters tried to wash away the blood and human remains from the sidewalks and walls, the drainage canals flooded with bloody water.

Among the victims were children in uniform who were on their way to a nearby school. A picture circulating on social media showed one young child in the morgue still wearing her pink schoolbag, pulled up as a pillow to her hair, which was covered in blood.

"I have carried so many bodies that I cannot even talk," said Mohammad Karim, 47, who lives nearby. "What is our pain? It is an ongoing pain and misery. They are attacking us and we are being martyred. I carried about 12 bodies. I carried a daughter and mother. The daughter's brain was smashed out, the mother's abdomen was cut open."

Despite the deadly chaos of the bombing, which left women and children among the dead and sent ambulances racing to hospitals across the capital, residents in the area said they were determined to sign up and participate in the polls.

Mohammad Zia Feroz, 26, an employee of the Afghan Red Crescent, said that "Hazaras will never back off. Threats won't stop us. There is no way other than taking part in elections."

A small business owner Hassan Ali Jafari, 45, echoed that determination, saying such attacks "cannot scare Hazaras. We will vote." Jafari, who has two national ID cards, added, "I would use both to vote, if I could."

ROADSIDE BOMB

Elsewhere in Afghanistan, at least five people were killed when their vehicle struck a roadside bomb in the northern Baghlan province. Zabihullah Shuja, spokesman for the provincial police chief, said four other people were wounded in Sunday's blast in Puli Khomri, the province's capital.

The Taliban routinely target security forces and government officials with roadside bombs, which often end up killing civilians.

In the northern Balkh province, a district police chief died of his wounds after being shot Saturday during an exchange of gunfire with insurgents, according to Sher Jan Durrani, spokesman for the provincial police chief. He said around a dozen insurgents were also killed in the battle, which is still underway.

Durrani identified the slain commander as Halim Khanjar, police chief for the Char Bolak district.

The Taliban claimed responsibility for the killing.

In the week since voter registration began, staff members have been abducted in the western province of Ghor, and at least one registration center came under rocket fire in Badghis province in the country's northwest. In the eastern city of Jalalabad, gunmen on a motorcycle shot and killed two police officers guarding a voter registration center.

Officials said that even provincial capitals were struggling to open all voter registration centers. "There are 55 voter registration centers in Kunduz city and the villages that belong to the center, and 20 of them are closed because those villages are under Taliban control," said Gen. Abdul Hamid Hamidi, police chief of Kunduz province.

The country's parliamentary elections have been delayed by three years as the leaders of the coalition government, which came out of a presidential election that almost tore the country apart, debated measures to prevent the fraud that had marred previous elections.

After public disagreements that added to the voter fatigue, the leaders announced an October date for the elections. They also decided to declare void the millions of voter identification cards already in circulation, which have been used in vote rigging in the past.

Instead, they asked people to return to their local polling centers and register with their national ID cards. Officials and party leaders have expressed concern about the low response, especially after recent attacks targeting registration centers or their staff. In the first week of voter registration, just 190,000 people signed up -- from what political parties estimated is a pool of about 14 million eligible voters.

"We are concerned about the rate of voter registration," said Bashir Ahmad Tayanj, a spokesman for the Junbish party, an Uzbek group. "If people don't take part in the election, it will be meaningless."

Security officials have said that close to 1,000 polling stations are completely beyond government control, while more than 2,000 others are in areas that are described as medium or high security risks. In total, there are about 7,355 polling stations in Afghanistan.

Information for this article was contributed by Mujib Mashal and Jawad Sukhanyar of The New York Times; by Rahim Faiez and Maamoun Youssef of The Associated Press; and by Sayed Salahuddin, Pamela Constable and Sharif Hassan of The Washington Post.

A Section on 04/23/2018

Print Headline: Voter-site blast kills 57 Afghans in line

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