Herat (Afghanistan) (AFP) -
A suicide bomber struck one of western Afghanistan's biggest mosques Friday, killing at least 18 people including an influential imam who this year called for those who commit 'the smallest act' against the government to be beheaded.
Images posted on Twitter showed what appeared to be blood-stained bodies scattered around the compound of Gazargah Mosque in the city of Herat.
Violence has largely declined since the Taliban returned to power last year, but several bomb blasts -- some targeting minority communities -- have rocked the country in recent months, many claimed by the jihadist Islamic State (IS) group.
At least 18 people, including prominent pro-Taliban cleric Mujib ur Rahman Ansari, were killed and 23 wounded in Friday's suicide attack, said Hameedullah Motawakel, spokesman for the governor of Herat province.
'The bomber came near Ansari and then set off his explosives-laden vest,' Motawakel told AFP.
Deputy Prime Minister Abdul Ghani Baradar, who had met Ansari just hours earlier in the day at a separate gathering in Herat, condemned the cleric's killing.
'A strong and brave religious scholar of the country was martyred while performing Friday prayers,' Baradar said on Twitter.
'The perpetrators of this heinous act will be punished.'
No group has so far claimed the attack.
Ansari, who was in his late 30s, was an influential cleric known for his fiery speeches.
In July, during a religious gathering in Kabul, he strongly defended Afghanistan's new Taliban rulers.
'Whoever commits the smallest act against our Islamic government should be beheaded,' he said.
'This (Taliban) flag has not been raised easily, and it will not be lowered easily.'
- Cleric had security -
Even before the Taliban returned to power in August 2021, the ultra-conservative cleric had been calling for women to be fully covered in public, and for bans on musical concerts in Herat.
In his speeches, he regularly launched tirades against the previous US-backed governments.
Government spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid said authorities had provided Ansari with security given his high profile in the country.
'Ansari had been provided with bodyguards, bullet proof vehicles, and also weapons and equipment to guard his seminary,' Mujahid said in a statement.
Two days earlier the intelligence agency had killed a four-member group in Herat that was planning to assassinate Ansari, he added.
Ansari is the second pro-Taliban cleric to be killed in a blast in less than a month, after an August 11 suicide attack targeted Rahimullah Haqqani at his madrassa in Kabul.
Haqqani was known for angry speeches against IS, who later claimed responsibility for his death.
He had also spoken in favour of girls being allowed to attend secondary school, despite the government banning them from attending classes in most provinces.
Several mosques across the country have been targeted this year, some in attacks claimed by IS.
At least 21 people were killed and dozens more wounded on August 17 when a blast ripped through a mosque packed with worshippers in Kabul.
IS has primarily targeted minority communities such as Shiites, Sufis and Sikhs.
While IS is a Sunni Islamist group like the Taliban, the two are bitter rivals and greatly diverge on ideological grounds.
Government officials claim that IS has been defeated but experts say the group is the main security challenge for the country's current Islamist rulers.