KANDAHAR, Afghanistan – A suicide bomber on a motorized rickshaw detonated explosives Monday in a marketplace in southern Afghanistan, killing 28 people in one of the deadliest bombings since the fall of the Taliban. Children selling chewing gum and cigarettes were among the victims of the blast.
The attacker was apparently targeting a police commander when he detonated his bomb near a taxi stand around 6:30 p.m. in the town of Gereshk in Helmand province, the world’s largest poppy-growing region and site of the country’s worst violence this year.
Gereshk district chief Abdul Manaf Khan said 28 people were killed, including 13 police and 15 civilians. The provincial chief of public health, Enayatullah Ghafari, said the hospital recorded 26 deaths and 60 wounded, though he said some of the dead probably weren’t brought to the hospital and the death toll was likely higher.
NATO said 13 people were taken to a NATO-Afghan base for treatment and 45 people to the Gereshk hospital.
Taliban militants have set off a record number of suicide blasts this year â€” more than 100 through the end of August â€” but few are as deadly as the Helmand attack. The Taliban typically aim their attacks at international and Afghan military and police forces.
NATO’s International Security Assistance Force said the attacker was driving a motorized rickshaw â€” a small engine-powered cart commonly used as a taxi in southern Afghanistan.
Gen. Mohammad Zahir Azimi, the Defense Ministry spokesman, said a local police commander who survived the attack appeared to have been the target. A Taliban spokesman couldn’t immediately be reached for comment.
A shopkeeper, Abibullah Khan, whose 16-year-old son was wounded, said young children who walk the market selling cigarettes and chewing gum were among the blast’s victims. He said more than a dozen shops were damaged.
“I saw a lot of people wounded and killed on the ground,” Khan said by telephone from the hospital in the nearby town of Lashkar Gah. “It’s a very crowded area. At this time of night many villagers are in Gereshk’s big market.”
The attack appeared to be the second-deadliest bombing in Afghanistan this year and the third-deadliest since the fall of the Taliban in late 2001. In June, 35 people were killed in a bomb attack on a police bus in Kabul, while in September 2002, 30 people were killed and 167 wounded in a Kabul car bombing.
Afghanistan has seen a spike in violence this year, especially in the south. More than 4,200 people, mostly militants, have died in insurgency-related violence in 2007, according to an AP count based on figures from Afghan and Western officials.
Earlier in the day, a spokesman for the militant group said the Taliban would consider negotiating with the Afghan government, but said no direct offer has been made by President Hamid Karzai’s administration.
“If Karzai and his government ask directly for negotiations, the Taliban would consider that offer,” Qari Yousef Ahmadi said by phone from an unknown location.
Ahmadi’s comments come a day after Karzai reiterated an offer to negotiate with the hard-line Islamic fundamentalists, but added, the fighters “don’t have an address” or a telephone number. “Who do we talk to?” Karzai asked.
Ahmadi, however, said the militants were easy to contact if government officials wanted to talk. He noted that South Korean officials flew into the country and quickly contacted the Taliban for negotiations over the fate of South Korean hostages last month.
“Whenever the Afghan government wants to hold negotiations, the Taliban is in Afghanistan,” he said.
Meanwhile, 10 of 13 employees for a U.N.-funded land mine-clearing agency who were kidnapped in eastern Afghanistan last week were released Monday, said Paktia provincial police chief Esmatullah Alizai. The three remaining captives were expected to be released soon, Alizai said.
Kefayatullah Eblagh, the head of Afghan Technical Consultants, the mine-clearing agency, said he didn’t think Taliban militants were behind the abductions, suggesting a criminal group seeking ransom money carried out the kidnappings.
Elsewhere, militants ambushed and killed four police officers from the northwest province of Faryab who were traveling to neighboring Badghis province to help repel an attack on a government center, said Faryab provincial police chief Gen. Khalil Zayia.