Rescue workers Wednesday sifted through the rubble of the deadliest bombing in Afghanistan for a year as signs of poor election turnout pointed to the success of Taliban intimidation.
An Afghan man closes his roadside shop and prepares to leave ahead of evening prayers under posters of Afghan president Hamid Karzai in Kabul, Afghanistan, Tuesday, Aug. 25, 2009. (AFP Photo)
With the Taliban-led insurgency at record levels, the Islamist rebels were blamed for setting off a truck bomb in the heart of the southern city of Kandahar, killing at least 40 people and wounding 65, almost all civilians.
The force of the explosion shattered windows and brought down buildings, trapping people under the rubble as they were breaking their Ramadan fast, General Ghulam Ali Wahdat, the southern police zone commander, told AFP.
The Taliban denied involvement in the attack. The militia, which ruled Afghanistan from 1996 until the 2001 US-led invasion, are known to exaggerate their claims as well as deny attacks involving civilian casualties.
"It was a truck bomb. In total 40 to 41 people have been killed and over 65 other people have been wounded," Wahdat told AFP.
Afghan and foreign forces sealed off the site in the troubled city, which was an old Taliban regime powerbase, as they searched through the rubble from over 10 buildings destroyed in the explosion, an AFP photographer said.
The bomb blew up near a Japanese construction company, a guest house used by foreigners and government offices. Kandahar is the province of President Hamid Karzai, who is narrowly leading the race for re-election after polls last week.
The explosives caused massive damage, set a wedding hall ablaze and trapped people under the rubble, officials said.
Dazed and panicked Afghans, some covered in blood, joined security forces to search for victims in the debris, the AFP photographer said.
Afghanistan, like the rest of the Muslim world is observing the holy month of Ramadan with fasting from dawn to dusk, when people generally go home to eat and so the district was less busy than normal.
The killings made it the deadliest explosion in Afghanistan since a suicide car bomber killed more than 60 people, including two senior diplomats, in an attack on the Indian embassy in Kabul on July 7, 2008.
Karzai called in his security officials shortly after Tuesday's attack and ordered a thorough investigation of the incident and the arrest of "those responsible as soon as possible," his office said.
The attack happened less than two hours after the Independent Election Commission in Kabul announced the first results from the hotly contested elections held last Thursday beneath a cloud of Taliban-induced fear.
Taliban had pledged to disrupt the poll, the second of its kind in the history of Afghanistan now on the path to a Western-sponsored democracy.
Although the West praised election day for taking place amid less violence than expected, officials said there were more than 300 incidents ranging from small explosions to rocket attacks and gun battles that killed 26 people.
After less than nine months, 2009 is also now on record as the deadliest year for foreign troops in the country since the US-led invasion.
Partial results from the ballot released Tuesday showed Karzai -- who is from Kandahar province -- with a two percent lead over his main rival, former foreign minister Abdullah Abdullah.
Figures released to AFP by Karzai's campaign office, gathered from polling stations by his representatives, put him on track to win between 55 and 62 percent of the vote.
The Karzai office figures show total turnout at less than 5.5 million out of registered voters numbering between 15 million and 17 million.
Analysts have said that such low turnout -- one of the aims of the Taliban intimidation campaign -- could raise questions about the legitimacy of the victor and possibly lead to widespread unrest.
The neck-and-neck race between the two increasingly bitter rivals has been tainted with claims of fraud and ballot-stuffing, most of it in favour of Karzai, whose camp has been claiming victory since shortly after polls closed.
A bomb attack on Wednesday in Kunduz meanwhile killed the head of the justice department in the northeastern province, Qari Jihangir, police said.
"The bomb was placed in his car. We're investigating the incident right now," said regional police chief Abdul Razaq Yaqoubi.