IMAGE: SITE OF BOMBING IN KANDAHAR
Ismail Sameem  /  Reuters
Afghans gather around at the site of a suicide bombing Monday that killed three Afghan soldiers and two civilians in downtown Kandahar.
msnbc.com news services
updated 1/16/2006 1:27:17 PM ET 2006-01-16T18:27:17

A man on a motorbike drove up to a crowd watching a wrestling match in an Afghan border town Monday, killing 20 people and wounding at least 30 others — the deadliest in a recent spate of attacks.

The attack came hours after a bomb hit a convoy of Afghan army trucks loaded with troops in the southern city of Kandahar, killing four people and wounding 16. Earlier reports said five had been killed in that blast.

The combined toll was the worst in a day from bombings in Afghanistan since U.S.-led forces overthrew the Taliban in late 2001 and came just hours after President Hamid Karzai expressed concern about an increase in such attacks.

The man on the motorbike detonated explosives strapped to his body near a crowd of about 100 people watching a wrestling match at a fair in Spinboldak, a key crossing point into southern Pakistan, said Kandahar provincial Gov. Asadullah Khalid.

“The wrestling match was about to end when the explosion occurred,” Khalid said.

He said that 20 people were killed, as well as the attacker, and more than 20 were wounded, at least five seriously.

However, Rafiq Tarin, a government administrator in the neighboring Pakistani town of Chaman, said more than 30 people who were injured in the explosion were treated in a hospital there, including many in critical condition.

Attack on army convoy
Defense Ministry spokesman Gen. Mohammed Zahir Azimi said the attack on the Afghan army convoy was a suicide car bombing. However, the army commander in Kandahar, Maj. Gen. Rehmatullah Raufi, said it was a roadside bomb.

The open-backed trucks were returning to Kandahar, about 50 miles northwest of Spinboldak, from an operation outside the city when they were hit by the blast near a crowded market, both officials said.

One soldier and three passers-by were killed, while six troops and 10 civilians were wounded, Raufi said. Azimi initially reported three soldiers had been killed, but later said he had been mistaken.

A witness, Abdul Khan, said the bomb appeared to have been hidden in a roadside cart loaded with fruit.

“One of the trucks was totally destroyed. The soldiers were thrown from the back and it hit so many people standing on the street,” he said.

Canadian diplomat killed
On Sunday, a suicide car bomb in Kandahar killed a senior Canadian diplomat and two Afghan civilians and wounded three Canadian troops — part of a new NATO-led deployment in the volatile south of Afghanistan.

Suicide attacks are a relatively new tactic for militants here and one that has reinforced fears that this country may see more assaults modeled on those in Iraq.

Karzai on Monday urged nations not to turn their back on his country four years after the ouster of the radical Taliban, warning it could again be used as a staging post for terrorists to attack Europe and America.

Speaking at his palace in Kabul ahead of a foreign donors’ conference in London later this month, Karzai said his nation will need assistance for a long time.

“We are in a joint struggle against terrorism, for us and for the international community,” he told reporters. “If you don’t defend yourself here, you will have to defend yourself back home, in European capitals and Americans’ capitals.”

“It will take many, many more years before we can defend ourselves with our own means, before we can feed ourselves or work for our development with our own means,” Karzai added.

U.S.: Insurgents desperate
Also Monday, U.S. military spokesman Col. James Yonts said U.S.-led coalition and Afghan forces had killed five suspected militants late Friday in eastern Khost province. He did not give further details.

Asked at a news conference about the recent spate of bombings, Yonts said militant tactics had recently shifted away from direct assaults on military forces and toward guerrilla-style attacks against less-protected targets.

“The enemy knows he cannot defeat us militarily,” he said. “He is shifting his tactics to soft targets. He will strike without warning and he will strike, as we have seen, unfortunately against civilians.”

Violence across southern and eastern Afghanistan spiked last year, leaving about 1,600 people dead, the most since U.S.-led forces ousted the Taliban in 2001 for hosting Osama bin Laden — even as it take steps toward democracy.

More attacks as NATO gears up
The past few months have seen a spate of Taliban suicide attacks, mainly targeting U.S.-led troops and NATO peacekeepers, but they have not caused major casualties among foreign forces.

The attacks have come at a time when America’s NATO allies are due to take over more responsibility from U.S. troops in Afghanistan and Washington is looking to trim its commitment.

The NATO plans have faced some opposition and the Dutch parliament is due to debate on Jan. 25 whether to commit 1,400 more troops to the volatile south, a highly contentious issue in the Netherlands given the dangers.

The European Union’s special representative to Afghanistan, Francesc Vendrell, warned last week it would be a heavy blow for Europe’s prestige in Afghanistan if the Netherlands found it impossible to send forces to the south.

Karzai said he had intelligence reports months ago that suicide attackers were being trained in frontier areas and most attacks were carried out by “foreigners.”

Despite the threat posed by suicide bombings, on Karzai’s orders police have begun removing some checkpoints and security barriers set up around Western installations in the capital, Kabul, in order to ease traffic congestion.

The U.S.-led force in Afghanistan, embassies and the United Nations have expressed concern about the move.

The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.

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