Five MPs among up to 50 killed as insurgents switch focus from military to civilian targets

A suicide bomber killed up to 50 Afghans yesterday, including five MPs and several children, in one of the bloodiest incidents since the fall of the Taliban in 2001.

Reports of the total killed varied widely in the aftermath of the attack in Baghlan, 90 miles north of Kabul, when a bomber wearing explosives set them set off in the middle of a crowd gathered to welcome a parliamentary delegation to a sugar factory.

An interior ministry spokesman said that 28 people had died and 59 were injured. But the provincial security chief said a total of 50 bodies had been listed, and warned the figure could rise further.

“There are still bodies on the streets that we have not counted, and some have already been taken away by relatives,” Abdurrahman Sayedkhail told Reuters.

If confirmed, his toll would make it the deadliest single attack in Afghanistan for many years, underscoring the perilous slide in security across the country.

The attack may mark an ominous shift in insurgent tactics. More than 200 people have died in suicide attacks this year. But until yesterday insurgents mostly targeted security forces, although many civilians have been killed in blasts.

Attackers have never before targeted such a large number of civilians or MPs from the fledgling parliament.

Witnesses saw the bomber holding a bomb in one hand and wearing an explosive belt around his chest. Then broken bodies of the living and dead littered the streets of the normally peaceful town.

“I saw bodies lying in the streets and some of the people were stealing the weapons of the dead soldiers. Children were screaming for help. It’s like a nightmare,” said Muhammad Rahim, who lost two cousins in the blast.

The head of hospitals in Baghlan, Yousaf Faiz, said many children were caught in the blast. “The children were standing on both sides of the street, and were shaking the hands of the officials, then suddenly the explosion happened,” he said. A Taliban spokesman denied responsibility. “The Taliban doesn’t target civilians. It might have been carried out by their rivals in the parliament,” said Zabiullah Mujahid. “These parliamentarians were mujahideen in the past and killed lots of civilians. Maybe someone was trying to take revenge.”

Most of the Taliban’s recent targets have been in the south and east of the country rather than in the capital; however, instability in northern Afghanistan has been slowly rising. Taliban bombers have killed regional governors in the past, but never so many public figures at once.

Hamid Karzai, the president, said: “This is a heinous act of terrorism and I condemn it in the strongest possible terms.” He blamed the incident on “the enemies of peace and security”. A US military spokesman, Lt Col David Accetta, said that he had no information indicating whether al-Qaida had been behind the blast.

Among the dead was Mustafa Kazimi, a former Northern Alliance fighter who once served in Mr Karzai’s government. He was a spokesman for the National Front, a new party largely made up of veterans of the mujahideen war against Soviet occupation in the 1980s. Four other MPs, who had been visiting the sugar factory as part of an economic commission looking into the privatisation of the plant, were also killed. Their deaths prompted an emergency sitting of parliament last night.

“This is a great shock,” said Kabul MP Shukria Barakzai by phone. “You can see they are from different tribes, different backgrounds, different ethnic groups. There is Hazara, Tajik and Uzbek; Shia and Sunni. Their target is not the foreigners, it is the Afghan nation. They just want to kill people, that is all.”

The British ambassador, Sir Sherard Cowper-Coles, called it a “cowardly and abhorrent act of terrorism”. White House press secretary Dana Perino called the attack a despicable act of cowardice. “It reminds us who the enemy is: extremists with evil in their hearts who target innocent Muslim men, women and children,” she said.

The Taliban-affiliated militant group Hizb-i-Islami has strong ties in the area where the blast occurred. Its fugitive leader Gulbuddin Hekmatyar has previously pledged allegiance to al-Qaida.

In Kandahar, the Canadian defence minister Peter MacKay had a narrow escape when a rocket landed near him during a visit to a base, a spokesman said. Four soldiers were slightly wounded.

This year has been the deadliest so far in Afghanistan since the fall of the Taliban, with more than 5,500 deaths.

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