KABUL - A suicide bomber detonated explosives outside a mosque packed with senior regional officials in northern Afghanistan on a major Muslim holiday Friday, killing 41 people. The officials escaped unhurt, and many of the dead were soldiers and police.
The attack was the latest in a series of deadly strikes in recent weeks against Afghan army, police and government officials. The choice of targets suggests that the insurgents are increasingly turning against Afghan authorities and security forces now that NATO is drawing down toward a final withdrawal of foreign combat troops in 2014.
Deaths of Afghan police and soldiers are higher this year than last year, according army spokesman Gen. Mohammad Zaher Azimi. Although the Taliban have claimed responsibility for a parallel sharp increase in attacks by Afghan servicemen on their foreign colleagues, the overall number of coalition deaths has been noticeably lower than last year.
Health Minister Soraya Dalil said 41 people were killed and 56 wounded in Friday's attack.
At least 14 civilians were among the dead, just two days after Taliban leader Mullah Mohammad Omar urged his fighters to "pay full attention to the prevention of civilian casualties" because he said the enemy was trying to blame them on the insurgents. Taliban attacks account for the vast majority of civilian casualties in the war, according to the U.N.
There was no immediate claim of responsibility for the suicide bombing outside the mosque. The attack took place in the town of Maymana, capital of northern Faryab province, where the Taliban and allied militant groups have been active far from their traditional strongholds in southern and eastern Afghanistan.
The bomber struck after top provincial officials, including the governor and the police chief, had assembled inside the mosque to celebrate the Eid al-Adha holiday. The blast went off in the middle of a large crowd that included police and soldiers waiting for the dignitaries to remerge.
"The targets of the bomber were all the officials inside the mosque," Deputy Governor Abdul Satar Barez said. Nobody inside the mosque was reported hurt. The carnage was all outside.
"There was blood and dead bodies everywhere," said Khaled, a doctor who was in the mosque at the time of the blast and who, like many Afghans, uses only one name. "It was a massacre," said Khaled, who like many Afghans uses only one name.
Video from the scene showed the motionless bodies of several soldiers and policemen lying next to their vehicles parked on a tree-lined avenue of the city, located about 500 kilometres (300 miles) northwest of the capital, Kabul. On the sidewalk, civilians were lying along the mosque's outer wall, some writhing and moaning in pain.
Friday's bombing took place at roughly the same time as Afghan President Hamid Karzai was taping his Eid al-Adha televised message to the nation. In the address, Karzai urged Taliban insurgents "to stop killing other Afghans" and "stop the destruction of our mosques, hospitals and schools."
Later, Karzai issued a statement saying those who carried out Friday's attack were "enemies of Islam and humanity."
The NATO-led coalition's commander, U.S. Gen. John R. Allen, also condemned the attack.
"This violence undertaken at a place of worship, and during Eid, once again shows the insurgency's callous hypocrisy and disregard for religion and faith," Allen said in a statement.
Insurgents have staged numerous suicide bombings at mosques during the 11-year war.
The deadliest such attack took place last December in Kabul, with 56 Shiite Muslim worshippers killed and 160 wounded. Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, a Pakistan-based Sunni Muslim group, claimed responsibility.
On Sept. 4, 25 civilians were killed and more than 35 wounded in an attack on a mosque in Nangarhar province. That attack targeted a district chief as he and a group of people were heading from the mosque to a cemetery. The district chief survived but his son did not.
The attacks on Afghan officials indicate that the Taliban are trying to exploit NATO plans to withdraw its roughly 100,000 troops from the country by the end of 2014, leaving security in the hands of the 352,000-strong Afghan army and police. There are serious questions about the ability of the newly trained security forces to combat the insurgency, which even the U.S.-led coalition has not been able to stamp out.
At the same time, the spate of so-called insider attacks has undermined trust between international troops and Afghan army and police, further weakened public support for the war in NATO countries and increased calls for earlier withdrawals.
On Friday, the Taliban claimed responsibility for the deaths of two American service members in southern Uruzgan province the day before.
In an emailed statement, Taliban spokesman Yusuf Ahmadi said a member of the Afghan security forces shot the two men and then escaped to join the insurgents.
Maj. Lori Hodge, spokeswoman for U.S. forces in Afghanistan, said Thursday that authorities were trying to determine whether the latest attacker was a member of the Afghan security forces or an insurgent who donned a government uniform.
It was the second suspected insider attack in two days. On Wednesday, two British service members and an Afghan policeman were gunned down in Helmand province.
Before Thursday's assault, 53 foreigners attached to the U.S.-led coalition had been killed in attacks by Afghan soldiers or police this year.
Associated Press writer Slobodan Lekic in Kabul contributed to this report.