Seven bodyguards of a provincial governor in Afghanistan have been killed in a guerrilla attack, deepening instability as the fractured country prepares for a debate on a draft constitution.
Their deaths bring the number of people killed in the past two months to nearly 300, including civilians, aid agency workers, Afghan policemen and soldiers, and three American troops.
The toll means Afghanistan has entered its bloodiest period since US-backed forces swept into Kabul in late 2001, claiming to have "liberated" it by removing the repressive Taliban government.
It is further evidence that attacks by anti-government guerrillas - including the Taliban - are resurgent, notably in the south and east. Over the weekend, Islamist militants burnt down a school for girls in eastern Afghanistan.
The latest violence - coupled with concerns over the slow pace of reconstruction - adds to the pressure on the Nato secretary general, Lord Robertson of Port Ellen, to expand the area covered by the 5,000 international peacekeepers under the alliance's command.
At present, the force's mandate is limited to the capital city. This topic is sure to have led the agenda at Lord Robertson's meeting in Scotland yesterday with Afghanistan's interim president, Hamid Karzai.
The latest attack was in one of the most unstable southern provinces, Helmand. A police official said at least 10 Taliban fighters in two cars attacked a military vehicle carrying the bodyguards. The governor, Sher Mohammad Akhundzada, was not with them.
The Taliban claimed responsibility for an attack last week in which two Afghan workers from the Voluntary Association for the Rehabilitation of Afghanistan were killed in Helmand. The UN described their killing as a war crime.
The latest attacks come just before Afghans get their first look at the draft constitution, expected to be released this week. It is already in Mr Karzai's hands and, if he endorses it, will go before the national assembly in December. If adopted, it will pave the way for national elections in June - an optimistic date in the view of most observers.
According to those who have seen it, the 39-page draft provides for a relatively powerful, directly elected president and a weaker prime minister who is appointed by the president and subject to parliamentary approval.
The extent to which Islamic law would be enshrined has been the focus of particular disagreement.
The preamble declares that "Afghanistan is an Islamic state" and says its laws must be in accordance with Islam. But an official involved in drafting the document said it stops short of imposing sharia law.
Many further obstacles remain to be negotiated. Among the assembly's members are regional commanders - or warlords - who may see anything that strengthens the central government as undermining their own authority.
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