KANDAHAR, Afghanistan (Reuters) - A roadside bomb struck a tractor carrying revellers to a wedding in southern Afghanistan, killing 21 civilians, part of worsening violence in the final weeks of campaigning before a presidential election.
General Sher Mohammad Zazai, commander of an Afghan military unit in Helmand province, said the explosion occurred in Garmsir, part of the province where U.S. Marines launched the biggest operation of the war last month against Taliban militants.
“It’s the work of the enemy of the nation, it’s the work of the enemy of peace and the work of the Taliban,” Zazai said of the attack, which took place on Wednesday but was not reported until Thursday morning.
Assadullah Sherzad, police chief of Helmand province, said by telephone that the dead included women and children heading to a wedding in a trailer hauled by a tractor. The defence and interior ministries confirmed the toll.
Violence, already at its worst since the Taliban were ousted in 2001, has increased in the final stages of campaigning for the Aug. 20 election, which the militants have vowed to disrupt.
“Such attacks against civilians by terrorists show obvious hostility toward this land’s people. The culprits can never block the Afghan nation’s will for prosperity and development of their country,” President Hamid Karzai said in a statement.
Karzai has been campaigning countrywide and is favoured to win a second term against a divided opposition, although Britain’s ambassador in Kabul said on Wednesday the president may fail to win a majority in the first round and face a run-off.
Last month, U.S. and British forces in Helmand simultaneously launched the biggest operations of the war. They are still fighting to secure previously-Taliban held areas in the province.
The operations are meant to expand the government’s control of the volatile south ahead of the election, part of U.S. President Barack Obama’s new strategy to defeat militants, which has seen him send tens of thousands of extra troops.
The Taliban have called for a boycott of the poll and vowed to disrupt it with attacks on polling stations. Attacks on presidential running mates and candidates’ convoys were reported across the country last week.
Homemade bombs are by far the insurgents’ deadliest weapon, and they have also mounted suicide strikes on provincial government buildings in recent months throughout the south and east. On Tuesday they struck the capital Kabul with rockets.
Diplomats say security concerns could cut turnout, especially in southern and eastern provinces, adjacent to Pakistan and populated mainly by Pashtuns, Afghanistan’s largest ethnic group.
An Afghan government map obtained by Reuters shows that almost half of Afghanistan is at a high risk of attack by the Taliban and other insurgents, with 13 of its 356 districts coloured dark red, marking them under “enemy control”.
More than 1,000 civilians were killed between January and June — against 818 in the same period last year, according to U.N. data. At least 71 international troops were killed in July, the worst monthly toll for foreign forces since the war started.
In other incidents, the Interior Ministry said a roadside bomb exploded by a police vehicle on Thursday in Nad Ali district, also in Helmand province, killing five policemen and injuring three.
In neighbouring Kandahar province, NATO-led forces fired on a vehicle from a helicopter late on Wednesday, but disputed accounts by Afghan officials that they killed civilians.
Jirai district governor Niaz Mohammad Sarhadi said five people were killed in a vehicle carrying cucumbers. But U.S. military spokeswoman Lieutenant Commander Christine Sidenstricker said the vehicle was being loaded with weapons.
“Our information is that insurgents have been killed.”
The U.S. military also reported the death of a service member in the western province of Farah while on patrol on Wednesday.