A suicide bomber blew himself up today in a wedding hall in northern Afghanistan, killing more than 20 people including a well-known commander in an attack that deals a setback to efforts to unify the nation's ethnic factions, Afghan officials said.
Ahmad Khan Samangani, an ethnic Uzbek who is also a member of parliament, was welcoming guests to his daughter's wedding when the explosion occurred in Aybak, the capital of Samangan province.
No one has yet claimed responsibility for the blast. But in announcing their spring offensive on May 2, the Taliban said they would continue to target those who back the Karzai government and the US-led international military coalition. There is also a long history of conflict between the Taliban — who come mostly from the country's biggest group, the Pashtuns — and members of ethnic minorities.
Afghan President Hamid Karzai needs the minority groups — loosely known as the Northern Alliance — to back his efforts to reconcile with the Taliban. But minorities already worry that Karzai, a Pashtun, will make too many concessions to their Taliban enemies to achieve a peace deal to end the war. Whatever support for peace talks that Karzai has won from minority groups is likely to erode if militants continue to pick off their leaders one by one.
Mohammad Nawab Sherzai, criminal investigations director in Aybak who was helping provide security for the wedding, said most of the local guests had already gathered on the second and third floors of the three-story wedding hall when the morning explosion occurred. Samangani and other relatives and elders had moved to the first floor to welcome additional guests arriving from Mazar-i-Sharif, the capital of neighboring Balkh province.
"Suddenly, the attacker, who was among the guests from Mazar-i-Sharif, got very close to Samangani. He detonated his suicide vest," Sherzai said. "It was a big explosion. There were bloody bodies all around the first floor. The explosion was so strong. There were people even on the third floor who were wounded."
"Everybody was running in different directions. For about 10 minutes, nobody knew what was happening," he said. "There was dark smoke all around. After about 10 minutes, the people were able to see the bodies and start helping with the wounded."
Ghulam Mohammad Khan, the criminal investigations director of the provincial police, said more than 20 people died in the morning blast. Khan said the provincial chief of intelligence and an Afghan National Army division commander also were among those killed. More than 40 others were wounded, including Gen. Sayed Ahmad Sameh, a western regional commander for the Afghan National Police, who was a relative of Samangani, Khan said.
Samangani became famous during Afghanistan's fight against the Soviets, who left the country in 1989 after a 10-year occupation. He became a member of parliament last year and was considered a key leader in Samangan and northern Afghanistan.
The withdrawal of most foreign troops by the end of 2014 has spawned fears the country will descend into civil war when foreign troops leave.
To prevent that, Karzai needs the Northern Alliance to back his efforts to reconcile with the Taliban. That's because, while Pashtuns make up 42 percent of the population, collectively the minority Tajiks, Hazaras, Uzbeks and other smaller groups outnumber them. Without minority support, the country risks a de facto partition into a Pashtun south and a "minority" north.
The Taliban have assassinated a number of Northern Alliance and other minority leaders in recent years.
Gen. Daud Daud, an ethnic Tajik, who oversaw police activities in nine northern provinces, was killed in May 2011 when a Taliban suicide bomber wearing a police uniform blew himself up inside a heavily guarded compound as top Afghan and international officials left a meeting. Daud had also served as governor of Takhar province in the north, deputy interior minister for counternarcotics and was a former bodyguard of Ahmad Shah Massoud, the charismatic Northern Alliance commander who was himself killed in an al-Qa'ida suicide bombing two days before the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.
Other assassinations include the Takhar provincial police chief, Gen. Shah Jahan Noori, who died in the same blast as Daud. Mohammad Omar, the governor of neighboring Kunduz province in the north, was assassinated in October 2010 inside a mosque. Gen. Abdul Rahman Sayedkhili, the provincial police chief of Kunduz province, was killed by an insurgent bomber in March 2011. A month later, a suicide bomber killed Gen. Khan Mohammad Mujahid, who was police chief in the Taliban stronghold of Kandahar province in the south, but was aligned with the Northern Alliance.