By Griff Witte and Javed Hamdard
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, November 7, 2007
ISLAMABAD, Pakistan, Nov. 6 -- Dozens of people died Tuesday when a powerful bomb ripped through a welcoming procession for Afghan lawmakers in a northern province that had been considered one of Afghanistan's safest, Afghan and Western security officials said.
At least six members of the Afghan parliament were killed, along with schoolchildren and local elders who had gathered to tour a sugar factory in Baghlan province, nearly 100 miles north of the capital, Kabul. The attack, in Baghlan city, underscored the northward drift of insurgent activity in Afghanistan from traditional extremist strongholds in the south.
Casualty reports varied widely, but it appeared that at least two dozen people had died and 50 or more were injured. The blast, apparently caused by a suicide bomber, was one of the most devastating attacks in Afghanistan since the Taliban was ousted from power six years ago.
President Hamid Karzai denounced the attack. "This heinous act of terrorism is against Islam and humanity and I condemn it in the strongest possible terms," he said in a statement. "It is the work of the enemies of peace and security in Afghanistan."
The attack took place just before 4 p.m., according to the governor of Baghlan province, Mohammed Alam Isaqzai. Members of parliament's economics committee had arrived to inspect a recent renovation at the sugar factory. They had gotten out of their cars and were walking toward the factory when the bomber rushed toward them and detonated his explosives.
"Senior officials were coming from Kabul to Baghlan to see the factory, so the people were there greeting them," said Fazal Ahmed, an eyewitness who recounted the blast on Afghanistan's Tolo TV. "Kids from school were there. Our elders were there. And then the explosion happened."
The attack took place in an area where the security threat had been considered relatively low. "Baghlan's been one of the most consistently quiet provinces. There's been very little in the way of insurgent activity recently," said Maj. Charles Anthony, spokesman for NATO-led forces in Afghanistan.
But insurgents have been moving their campaign north this year, destabilizing parts of the country that had been relatively tranquil and stepping up their use of suicide bombs.
A U.S. military spokesman in Afghanistan said the attack bore the hallmarks of a Taliban strike. "It seems to be in line with the kind of attack that they normally carry out," said Lt. Col. David Accetta. "It's another one of their cowardly acts against the innocent people of Afghanistan and the legitimate government of Afghanistan."
The Taliban has traditionally concentrated its attacks on Afghan and international security forces. But a U.N. report released in September found that civilians constituted 80 percent of the Taliban's victims this year.
One member of parliament, Haji Mohammed Anwar Isaqzai, said his brother, also a lawmaker, had been killed in the blast. "We are at the airport now to receive the body of my brother," said an emotional Anwar, who represents Helmand province.
The dead lawmakers also included Sayed Mustafa Kazimi, a former commerce minister and leading member of a political opposition group known as the National Front. Kazimi had been an influential member of the Northern Alliance, the force that battled the Taliban throughout the extremist group's five-year reign over Afghanistan.
Shukria Barakzai, a member of parliament, said that fellow lawmakers convened an emergency session Tuesday night and that many were badly shaken by the attack on their colleagues. "They are really heroes for the country," Barakzai said of the slain lawmakers. "They didn't belong to just one tribe or one political party. They were people who had different political points of view."
This year has been the deadliest since the Taliban's overthrow in 2001, with 5,700 people killed in insurgency-related violence, according to a tally by the Associated Press based on official reports.
Afghanistan's ambassador to Washington, Said Tayeb Jawad, said Tuesday that the bombing in Baghlan showed that "more and more, the terrorists are choosing easier and softer targets."
"They want to convey the message that they have a presence all over the country," he said in an interview in Washington.
Jawad also said the Afghan government is very worried that the current turmoil in Pakistan will affect Afghanistan negatively. Armed Islamic groups allied with the Taliban and al-Qaeda are widely reported to operate from safe havens in Pakistan's tribal border regions, and Pakistani security forces have been attempting to dislodge them, with minimal success.
"We are extremely concerned that events are pulling Pakistan on a downward slope and making it very dangerous for us to be in the neighborhood," Jawad said. "What we need to do is strengthen our capability to fight extremism and terrorism in the region. If the people who are the natural allies of democracy, the lawyers and human rights activists and media people, are being targeted and put in jail, this will make the government of Pakistan rely even more on extremist groups."
Hamdard reported from Kabul. Staff writer Pamela Constable in Washington contributed to this report.