At least 40 people were killed and 77 injured by a suicide bomb attack on a packed wedding party in insurgency-plagued southern Afghanistan, officials said Thursday.
"A suicide bomber went inside the party where hundreds of people were sitting and blew himself up," a police official said of the blast at around 9:30 p.m. (1 p.m. ET) on Wednesday in Arghandab district, north of Kandahar, where foreign troops are focusing on a push in coming months to whittle out the Taliban.
A Kandahar policeman said many of the guests had links to local police officials or a local militia, which was why it was likely targeted, although the Taliban denied responsibility.
"We condemn such a brutal act," Taliban spokesman Qari Yousuf Ahmadi told Reuters from an undisclosed location. "The Taliban wage Jihad (holy war) in order to free the people from the hands of occupiers. How can we kill them?"
The Taliban have previously claimed responsibility for insurgent attacks, but recanted once civilian casualties have become clear.
Ahmadi laid blame at the feet of the the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) for Afghanistan, which has killed hundreds of civilians in misdirected air strikes, but a U.S. military spokesman dismissed this as "misinformation."
Earlier Wednesday, the four U.S. soldiers were killed when a helicopter they were riding in came under fire and crashed in Helmand, which is next to Kandahar. A total of 29 NATO troops have been killed this month, including 10 on Monday alone, seven of them Americans. It was the deadliest day for the military alliance in seven months.
'End of the world'
Witnesses described scenes of chaos at the wedding, which had drawn around 400 celebrants including women and children from nearby villages.
"Some people were waiting for food, others were dancing inside a big tent, when I heard a deafening blast," a wounded survivor named Aminullah said.
"The dust went up in the sky and I saw dead bodies everywhere. Women and children were screaming. I thought it was end of the world."
Agha Mohammed, who survived the wedding blast, said the guests were all seated and having a meal when the explosion occurred, sending a huge fireball and smoke into the sky.
He told The Associated Press that the scale of the destruction caused by the blast was more than was common in a suicide attack. "We have experience with war and this does not look like a suicide bombing," Mohammed said.
Rural wedding parties in Afghanistan can often be raucous affairs with large gatherings of people and frequently accompanied by celebratory gunfire. Several have mistakenly been attacked in the past by foreign forces. However Taliban attacks have claimed more civilian lives.
Citing hospital reports, Kandahar Governor Tooryalai Wisa said ball bearings had been used as shrapnel, a hallmark of suicide bombings. Children were among the dead, the Interior Ministry said in a statement.
"The Taliban are doing two things at once," Wisa said. "On one side they target people who are in favor of the government, then at the same time they don't want people to know their real face."
Afghan President Hamid Karzai, whose plan to seek engagement with the Taliban won support at a tribal peace conference last week, deplored the wedding bombing as a "terrorist attack."
"This attack ... is the work of those cruel people who act against Islamic and divine values," Karzai's office said in a statement.
U.S. military spokesman Col. Wayne Shanks said the deaths were not the result of an airstrike, and said any suggestion otherwise was "Taliban misinformation."
"This ruthless violence brought to the Afghan people at what should have been a time for celebration demonstrates the Taliban's sickening and indiscriminate tactics to try to intimidate the citizens of Afghanistan," Lt. Gen. Nick Parker, Deputy Commander, International Security Assistance Force said in a prepared statement.
"It only proves they have no regard for human life," he added.
Ahmadi did claim responsibility on behalf of the insurgents for killing the U.S. troops, saying militants shot down the helicopter with two rockets.
Helmand provincial government spokesman Daoud Ahmadi said the attack occurred about midday in Sangin district.
Both U.S. and British troops are operating in Helmand, part of a band of provinces across southern Afghanistan that are the Taliban's heartland.
Also Wednesday, another NATO service member died in a homemade bomb attack. The Ministry of Defense in London said he was British.
Attack helicopters and other aircraft have given NATO troops a big advantage over the insurgents, who are armed mostly with automatic rifles and rocket-propelled grenades.
While shoulder-fired grenades can be used against aircraft — helicopters are especially vulnerable when taking off or landing — they are designed only for short-range use and aiming them accurately is difficult. NATO aircraft have only rarely been hit in Afghanistan.
One of the heaviest single-day losses of life for allied forces in Afghanistan occurred on June 28, 2005, when 16 U.S. troops died aboard a Special Forces MH-47 Chinook helicopter that was shot down by insurgents.