The carnage was savage even by the bloody standards of the spiralling and vicious violence in Afghanistan. More than 80 people watching a dog fight on the outskirts of Kandahar were killed yesterday when a suicide attacker detonated his bomb, causing the worst atrocity in Afghanistan since the ousting of the Taliban in 2001.
Among the dead was Abdul Hakim Jan, the leader of a local militia that had been fighting alongside British and Nato forces against the Taliban. The governor of the province, Assadullah Khalid, who survived an assassination attempt last week, had planned to go to the event, but is said to have changed his mind at the last minute.
Dog fighting is a popular form of Afghan entertainment that was banned under the Taliban, but which has enjoyed a resurgence in recent years.
Some residents said they believed that as well as targeting Commander Jan, the Islamist fighters were punishing people for daring to flout their old diktat.
"The two dogs had just started the first match. Suddenly I heard a huge explosion next to a police vehicle. Then I saw lots of people dead and wounded," said Abdul Karim, a spectator .
The death toll is expected to rise, with hospital authorities saying that many of the 30 or more wounded in the blast were not expected to survive. But with 82 fatalities already confirmed, yesterday's attack is the deadliest since the Taliban fell.
Despite the presence of more than 50,000 foreign troops in Afghanistan, some American officials believe that the country is replacing Iraq as the deadliest place for the "war on terror". More than 6,000 people were killed last year in the country in a record 140 suicide attacks, including one at the Serena hotel in Kabul, the city's most prestigious hotel used by international VIPs.
Kandahar, the scene of yesterday's bombing, is Afghanistan's second-largest city and the birthplace of the Taliban, and officials were quick to lay the blame at its door. "Who else would carry out suicide bombings? Obviously the Taliban are the ones carrying out suicide attacks," said Wali Karzai, the brother of Afghan president Hamid Karzai and head of the Kandahar provincial council.
Around 500 people had gathered at a picnic spot to watch the dog fights and place unofficial bets on the winners. The bouts had just started when the bomb exploded. The force of the blast spread dismembered limbs across a wide area, crumpled police vehicles and set buildings alight.
Another witness, Ahmed Gulmai Mohammed, said: "The noise was very, very loud. I thought my eardrums had burst. People had arms and legs torn off.
"We have been hearing that there were Talibs in the area but we did not expect anything like this. People are now frightened, the government and the foreigners [Nato] cannot protect us."
Khalid Pashtun, the MP for Kandahar said: "Hakim Jan was one of the important, prominent jihadi commanders in Kandahar. There were so many people gathered there, and of course the Taliban and al-Qa'ida usually target this type of important person."
Other witnesses said some of Commander Jan's bodyguards had shot into the crowd after the blast, adding to the death toll. "They just opened fire on everyone," said Faizullah Qari Gar, another Kandahari at the fight. "I don't know how many were killed by the bombing and how many by the shooting."
Before this weekend, the deadliest suicide attack had been last November in the northern city of Baghlan, when another bomber killed 79 people, most of them schoolchildren.
The last major attack on a crowd gathered for public entertainment was in January 2006, when a suicide bomber on a motorcycle blew himself up among men watching a wrestling match in the border town of Spin Boldak, near Kandahar, killing a total of 24 people.Reuse content