One of the worst suicide bombings in Afghanistan's history left at least 50 people dead in the northern town of Baghlan yesterday, including at least five MPs and many schoolchildren who had lined up to greet them when they arrived at a sugar factory.
The bomber infiltrated a large crowd of onlookers as the parliamentary delegation, on an economic fact-finding mission, moved between two lines of children towards the entrance to the factory. Witnesses said he detonated a bomb in his hand and a concealed explosives belt as the MPs were about to be received by officials and elders.
"Children are screaming for help. It's like a nightmare," a local man, Mohammad Rahim, told Reuters. He said the blast had killed his two cousins, both schoolgirls. Other witnesses said the scene was littered with bodies and awash with blood. Mostafa Kazemi, an opposition spokesman and former commerce minister, was among those killed, with at least four other MPs.
Shukria Barakzai, a deputy agriculture minister and prominent woman MP, was among the members of the 18-strong parliamentary delegation who were injured. She said 13 of the visiting MPs were dead or "in danger".
Attempts have been made to assassinate provincial governors before, but this was the bloodiest attack against representatives of the Afghan institutions created in the post-Taliban era. Baghlan's provincial security chief, Abdurrahman Sayedkhail, told Reuters: "The bomber got very close to the delegation as they were being greeted. He got very close to Mostafa Kazemi.
"He was carrying a massive amount of explosives. We have recorded 50 people dead so far but there are still bodies on the streets we have not counted and some of the dead have already been taken away by their relatives."
Mass-casualty attacks have become common in Iraq since the invasion in 2003, but the toll in yesterday's bombing shocked Afghans, who were already fearful that the state of emergency in neighbouring Pakistan would add to instability in their country.
Afghan insurgents have increasingly adopted Iraqi tactics against foreign troops and the Kabul government's security forces. Before the latest attack, more than 200 people had died in 130-plus suicide attacks, compared with just 100 bombings for the whole of last year.
The carnage in Baghlan was all the more unexpected because it happened far from the open warfare in southern and eastern Afghanistan that has flared up in the past two years against a resurgent Taliban. Although Kabul has suffered several devastating attacks against police and army targets in recent months, leading to heightened security in the capital, most suicide bombings are in provinces close to the border with Pakistan, from where many of the perpetrators come. Yesterday's attack was the first north of the Hindu Kush mountain range, which divides Afghanistan in two.
But it was not immediately certain that the Taliban was responsible for the attack. Baghlan province has not had any recent Taliban activity, although the movement has staged attacks close to Kabul.
Zabihullah Mujahid, a Taliban spokesman, was reported to have condemned the bombing. The Pakistan-based Afghan Islamic Press quoted him as saying: "The Baghlan explosion was not conducted by the Taliban."
Some Afghans believe the attack may be the work of followers of Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, an extreme former mujahedin leader who claims to be fighting Nato and Afghan government forces independently of the Taliban. Hekmatyar was closely allied with Pakistan's ISI intelligence agency, which distributed arms and money to the mujahedin for the CIA during the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan.
Despite being appointed prime minister after the collapse of the communist regime, he bombarded Kabul during the early 1990s, then tried to ally himself with the Taliban after the movement seized power in 1996. When the Taliban fell, he took refuge for a time in Iran.
President Hamid Karzai last night sent military personnel to help and ordered an investigation. The attack may end to his attempts to seek "reconciliation" with the Taliban and Hekmatyar, efforts which have approved by Britain and other European countries but strongly opposed by the US.Reuse content