Truck bomb kills 43 in Afghanistan
Afghan officials picked up the pieces Wednesday from the nation's deadliest bombing in more than a year as results dribbled out from an election overshadowed by Taliban intimidation.
With the Taliban-led insurgency at record levels, the Islamist rebels were blamed for setting off a truck bomb in the heart of southern Kandahar city, killing up to 43 people and injuring 65, almost all civilians.
The force of the explosion shattered windows and brought down buildings, trapping people under the rubble as they were breaking their Ramadan fast, General Ghulam Ali Wahdat, the southern police zone commander, told AFP.
The bomb blew up near a Japanese construction company, a guest house used by foreigners and government offices. Kandahar is the province of President Hamid Karzai, who is narrowly leading the race for re-election after polls last week.
The president ordered the arrest of "those responsible as soon as possible" and pledged 25 million afghanis (503,425 US dollars) in emergency assistance to repair destroyed shops and homes, his office said.
The attack came around two hours after the Independent Election Commission in Kabul announced the first results from a hotly contested presidential election held last Thursday beneath a cloud of Taliban-induced fear.
The Taliban had pledged to disrupt the election, the second of its kind in the history of Afghanistan, the focus of Western efforts to implant democracy.
The Taliban denied involvement in Tuesday's attack. The militia, which ruled Afghanistan from 1996 until the 2001 US-led invasion, are known to exaggerate their claims as well as deny attacks involving civilian casualties.
"It was a truck bomb. In total 40 to 41 people have been killed and over 65 other people have been wounded," Wahdat told AFP.
The interior ministry said 43 "innocent Afghan citizens" were killed. A wedding hall and a dozen civilian houses "were totally destroyed" it said.
Afghan and foreign forces sealed off the site in the troubled city, which was an old Taliban regime powerbase, as they sifted through the rubble from more than 10 buildings destroyed in the explosion, an AFP photographer said.
Dazed and panicked Afghans, some covered in blood, joined security forces to search for victims through the debris, he said.
The killings made it the deadliest explosion in Afghanistan since a suicide car bomber killed more than 60 people, including two senior diplomats, in an attack on the Indian embassy in Kabul on July 7, 2008.
Kai Eide, UN envoy to Afghanistan, condemned Tuesday's attack and offered his condolences. "The disregard for civilian lives shown by the perpetrators of this attack is staggering," he said.
Although the West praised election day for taking place amid less violence than expected, officials said there were more than 300 incidents ranging from small explosions to rocket attacks and gunbattles that killed 26 people.
After less than nine months, 2009 is also now on record as the deadliest year for foreign troops in the country since the US-led invasion.
Partial results from last week's ballot gave Karzai a two percent lead over his main rival, former foreign minister Abdullah Abdullah. Further results were due to be released later Wednesday.
Figures released to AFP by Karzai's campaign office put him on track to win between 55 and 62 percent of the vote, but with turnout at less than 5.5 million of up to 17 million registered to vote.
Analysts have said that such a low turnout -- one of the aims of the Taliban intimidation campaign -- could raise questions about the legitimacy of the victor, possibly leading to widespread unrest.
The neck-and-neck race between the two increasingly bitter rivals has been tainted with claims of fraud and ballot-stuffing, most of it in favour of Karzai, whose camp has been claiming victory since shortly after polls closed.
A bomb attack on Wednesday in Kunduz killed the head of the justice department in the northeastern province, Qari Jihangir, said police.
"The bomb was placed in his car. We're investigating the incident right now," said regional police chief Abdul Razaq Yaqoubi.