KABUL, Afghanistan – A suicide bomb exploded in a crowded market Thursday in an Afghan town just a few hundred yards from where the U.S. ambassador was meeting with local leaders. Ten Afghans were killed and 50 wounded in the deadliest of a recent series of attacks.
Ambassador Ronald E. Neumann was not hurt in the blast. A purported Taliban spokesman claimed responsibility and said the insurgents hoped to kill “high-ranking Americans.”
Recent violence in Afghanistan has reinforced fears voiced by Afghan officials that the Taliban and al-Qaida may have merged some of their forces and are adopting terror tactics used in Iraq. The bombing follows a foiled plot by militants in June to assassinate Neumann’s predecessor, Zalmay Khalilzad.
The Taliban was ousted from power in Afghanistan four years ago for hosting
Osama bin Laden.
Thursday’s attack occurred in Tirin Kot, capital of mountainous Uruzgan province, which has seen some of the fiercest Taliban fighting in the past year.
The bomb detonated in a market where townsfolk were trading sheep, vegetables and other local goods — about 500 yards from the home of the provincial governor, where the ambassador was meeting local officials, deputy provincial governor Abdul Aziz said.
It was unclear if the attacker purposely detonated the bomb or if it blew up prematurely.
“People were lying dead and wounded everywhere. They were screaming and crying. Some had no legs and arms,” said Dil Aqa, a 50-year-old farmer. “Who would do such a thing? These were innocent people.”
Among the wounded was the provincial deputy police chief, who was manning a checkpoint next to the governor’s house. Fifteen of the 50 wounded were in critical condition and had been rushed to hospitals in nearby Kandahar city, a former Taliban stronghold.
Two of the 10 dead were children, said Abdullah Khan, the governor’s spokesman.
The ambassador, who always travels with heavy security and whose schedule is rarely made public, was quickly whisked into a small room by his bodyguards when the explosion was heard, Aziz said. They waited there for about 15 minutes before they left the building.
The ambassador then returned safely to the capital, Kabul, U.S. Embassy spokesman Lou Fintor said. “The ambassador and his party are safe and have been accounted for. They were not in any danger,” he said.
A purported Taliban spokesman, Qari Mohammed Yousaf, called The Associated Press shortly after the blast to claim responsibility. He said the assailant was an Afghan and had hidden a land mine under his clothes.
Yousaf said the Taliban were aware that some senior American officials planned to visit the town, but did not know who. He said the bomber intended to attack them.
Yousaf has claimed responsibility for previous attacks in Afghanistan, but his exact ties to Taliban leadership are unclear.
The past year has been the bloodiest since 2001 as the Taliban and al-Qaida militants stepped up attacks. About 1,600 people were killed. Ninety-one American troops died in combat and accidents, more than double the total in 2004.
Since September, at least a dozen suicide bombings have hit the country, including twin assaults in the capital of Kabul on Nov. 14 that targeted
NATO-led peacekeepers and killed a German soldier and eight Afghans. Before that, such attacks were relatively rare.
Security forces guarding the border with Pakistan found a car Thursday packed with explosives that they suspect may have been intended for use in another suicide attack, said Abdul Razak, a police chief Kandahar province.
The top Taliban commander in southeastern Afghanistan, Mullah Dadullah, told the AP late last month that more than 200 insurgents were willing to kill themselves in assaults on U.S. forces and their allies.
Thursday’s attack came two days after militants beheaded a school headmaster as part of a suspected Taliban drive to close schools that educate girls, which they claim is against Islam.