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Kabul suicide bomber hits shrine

A suicide bomber has killed at least 56 people outside a shrine in Kabul during an unprecedented wave of violence against minority Shiites in Afghanistan.

The attacker blew himself up in the midst of a crowd of men, women and children gathered outside the Abul Fazl shrine on a holy day to commemorate the seventh century death of the Prophet Mohammed's grandson Imam Hussein.

A bomb strapped to a bicycle also exploded as a convoy of Afghan Shiites was driving down the road, shouting slogans for the festival known as Ashoura, in the northern city of Mazar-i-Sharif.

Religiously motivated attacks on Shiites are rare in Afghanistan although they are common in neighbouring Pakistan. No group claimed responsibility for the blasts, reminiscent of the wave of sectarian attacks that shook Iraq during the height of the war there.

Afghan President Hamid Karzai said the attack was unprecedented in scope.

He said it was "the first time that on such an important religious day in Afghanistan terrorism of that horrible nature is taking place."

Mohammad Bakir Shaikzada, the top Shiite cleric in Kabul, said he could not remember a similar attack having taken place on such a scale.

"This is a crime against Muslims during the holy day of Ashoura. We Muslims will never forget these attacks. It is the enemy of the Muslims who are carrying them out," he said, declining to place blame.

Mahood Khan, who is in charge of the Abul Fazl shrine, said the explosion occurred just outside a courtyard where dozens of worshippers were lined up as they filed in and out of the packed building.

A few minutes after the blast, bodies could be seen loaded into the trunks of cars while wounded were led away by friends and relatives. Survivors wept in the streets.

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