A Taliban suicide bomber killed Afghanistan's deputy chief of intelligence during a visit to a mosque east of Kabul on Wednesday in an attack that left 23 others dead.
The bombing struck at the heart of Afghanistan's intelligence service and underscored the Taliban's increasing ability to carry off complex and targeted assaults.
The explosion ripped through a crowd in Laghman province just as officials were leaving the main mosque in Mehterlam, 60 miles east of Kabul. Several top provincial officials from Laghman were among the dead, and President Hamid Karzai and the U.N. condemned the attack.
A Taliban spokesman said a suicide bomber on foot targeted Abdullah Laghmani, the deputy chief of Afghanistan's National Directorate for Security. The spokesman for Laghman's governor, Sayed Ahmad Safi, confirmed Laghmani was killed.
The National Directorate for Security is headed by an ethnic Tajik, and the killing of Laghmani, a Pashtun, could further exacerbate ethnic tensions as the country counts the results of the Aug. 20 presidential election.
With about half the results in, President Hamid Karzai, an ethnic Pashtun, leads Abdullah Abdullah, who is half Pashtun and half Tajik but is seen as a Tajik candidate.
Warning of ‘protest and violence’
In the northern city of Mazar-i-Sharif, meanwhile, an official with Abdullah's campaign warned that supporters of the former foreign minister would take to the streets if there was any perception that election fraud was overlooked.
Hundreds of serious allegations of fraud have been formally lodged since voting day, mostly involving ballot-box stuffing and voter intimidation.
"We are not talking too much because people are very angry and we don't want to add to that, but Dr. Abdullah is meeting with foreign embassies and regional partners to try to find a solution," said Zalmai Younosi, Abdullah's campaign chief in six northern provinces.
"After that, if there is no result, then it is protest and violence," he warned. "Yes, violence is bad for the country ... When Russia occupied Afghanistan, we had to fight. When the Taliban came we had to fight back. How can we accept a corrupt government funded by drugs and not respected by the world? We have to defend our own rights."
Mosque destroyed in holy month blast
The blast east of Kabul killed Laghmani, the executive director of Laghman's governor's office, the head of Laghman's provincial council, two of Laghmani's body guards, and 18 civilians, said Sayed Ahmad Safi, the spokesman for Laghman's governor.
"It is indefensible that such an attack was carried out at a mosque during the holy month of Ramadan," said Peter W. Galbraith, the deputy U.N. chief here. "The contrast between the vast majority of Afghans who yearn for peace during this holy month and those who conducted this attack could not be more stark."
Karzai said in a statement the "enemy" tried to kill "brave and hardworking" officials, but others with those same traits would take their place.
U.S. troops cordoned off the blast site, right outside Mehterlam's main mosque, which sits in a crowded market area. Safi said Laghmani was visiting the mosque to discuss plans to rebuild it.
Taliban suicide attacks frequently target high-ranking government officials. Militants have warned Afghans for years not to work as government officials, teachers, or in the country's armed forces.
Taliban attacks have spiked the last three years and insurgents now control wide swaths of territory, momentum that forced President Barack Obama to send 21,000 additional troops to the country this year.
U.S. military officials may soon ask for even more troops to be sent to the country, but American public opinion is starting to turn against the almost eight-year war as U.S. troop deaths have reached an all-time high.
Kidnapped spy found dead
The National Directorate for Security suffered a second attack in the country's north. An intelligence officer kidnapped a few days ago by Taliban militants in Kunduz province was found Wednesday hanging from a tree on the outskirts of Baghlan city, said Kabi Andarabi, the provincial police chief.
In other violence, four militants were killed overnight when a roadside bomb they were planting detonated, said Fazel Ahmad Sherzad, the deputy police chief of Kandahar.
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