A suicide bomber blew up a car packed with explosives near a busy market and a mosque in eastern Afghanistan on Tuesday, killing at least 89 people in the deadliest insurgent attack on civilians since the 2001 US-led invasion.
The explosion destroyed dozens of mud-brick shops, flipped cars over and stripped trees of their branches, brutally underscoring the country’s instability as US troops prepare to leave by the end of the year and politicians in Kabul struggle for power after a disputed presidential runoff.
Gen Mohammad Zahir Azimi, the Defence Ministry spokesman, said the bomber detonated his explosives as he drove by the crowded market in a remote town in Urgun district, in the Paktika province bordering Pakistan.
Azimi gave the death toll and said more than 40 other people were wounded. The military supplied helicopters and ambulances to take the victims to the hospital, he said, adding that the explosion destroyed more than 20 shops and dozens of vehicles.
Associated Press video footage of the aftermath showed mounds of twisted debris and the charred shells of cars flipped over on top of one another.
Many of the victims were buried under the rubble, said Mohammad Reza Kharoti, administrative chief of Urgun district.
“It was a very brutal suicide attack against poor civilians,” he said. “There was no military base nearby.”
There was no immediate claim of responsibility for the blast, and the Taliban issued a statement denying involvement, saying they “strongly condemn attacks on local people”. Several other insurgent groups operate in Afghanistan.
The UN mission in Afghanistan said initial reports “suggest that the attacker prematurely detonated after police detected the explosives in his vehicle”.
“Today’s appalling attack during Ramzan – an occasion that should be observed in a spirit of peace and compassion – should be condemned in the strongest possible terms, and the perpetrators must be held accountable,’’ said Jan Kubis, the UN representative to Afghanistan.
It was the deadliest insurgent attack against civilians since violence rose after the US invasion that ousted the Taliban in 2001. It exceeded the toll of twin bombings on Dec 6, 2011, that targeted Shia Muslims and killed 80 people in Kabul and Mazar-i-Sharif.
It was also the first major attack since a weekend deal between the two Afghan presidential contenders, brokered by US Secretary of State John Kerry, averted a dangerous rift in the country’s troubled democracy following last month’s disputed runoff.
“People were shocked, and we are shocked, but this is the sad reality of Afghanistan,” one of the candidates, former Foreign Minister Abdullah Abdullah, told The Associated Press in an interview.
Unofficial results from the runoff showed former Finance Minister Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai well in the lead, but Abdullah’s supporters say that is only because of widespread fraud.
Since fraud was alleged on both sides, the deal provides that every one of the 8 million ballots will be audited under national and international supervision over the next three or four weeks.
Neither the election nor the weekend deal has had any visible effect on security in the country, which has long seen near-daily attacks.