By Nasrat Shoaib (AFP)
KANDAHAR, Afghanistan — Fourteen Afghan civilians were killed and four others injured Thursday when a minivan struck a bomb in a Taliban heartland of southern Afghanistan.
The device exploded on a road between the districts of Gereshk and Sangin in Helmand province, a Taliban stronghold where US-led international troops are battling hard against the Islamist militants.
“Now we know that 14 people, all civilians including women and children, were martyred and four others, all men, were injured,” Daud Ahmadi, a provincial spokesman, told AFP.
“The bomb was planted by the Taliban,” he added. The Islamist militia, which frequently denies responsibility for attacks on civilians, said it played no part in the explosion.
Afghan President Hamid Karzai “strongly condemned” the devastating blast, blaming it on “the enemies of Afghanistan”, a reference to Taliban insurgents.
The nine-year war between the Afghan government, backed by 140,000 US-led foreign troops, and the Taliban is now at its deadliest.
The United Nations says 2,412 civilians died in Afghanistan in the first 10 months of 2010 and 3,803 were injured.
The figures represented a 20 percent increase on the same period last year, the UN said earlier this month, adding that over three-quarters of the casualities were linked to “anti-government elements”.
Much of Helmand, which is the heart of Afghanistan’s opium trade and also rich in agriculture, is under Taliban influnce.
Sangin is one of the bloodiest battlegrounds in the Afghanistan war and around a third of all British troops killed in the conflict have died there.
British soldiers handed over responsibility for the area to US forces in September.
On Monday, three people were killed in Kandahar city, in the neighbouring province, when a car bomb exploded in front of a bank where police were queuing to collect their salaries.
Confirming the latest attack, ISAF said: “More than 10 Afghan civilians were killed and several others were wounded in an explosion triggered by insurgents in a crowded area of Nahr-e Saraj district, Helmand province today.”
Afghan and NATO forces helped to evacuate the wounded, it added.
The nations contributing most to the ISAF force are the United States, with 90,000 troops, and Britain, with around 9,000.
A total of 709 international troops have died in Afghanistan in 2010, according to the independent iCasualties website, the highest figure since the war began in 2001.
Some 810 Afghan troops have also died in the war this year, most of them killed by improvised explosive devices (IEDs) or crude home-made bombs, according to Afghanistan’s defence ministry.
President Barack Obama announced 30,000 extra troops for Afghanistan last year as part of a surge strategy to try to turn around the conflict.
In a review of the strategy published earlier this month, Obama insisted it was on track although he stressed that gains were fragile.
Limited troop withdrawals are expected to start in July 2011 ahead of a planned handover of responsibility for security to Afghan forces in 2014.