Afghanistan

Blast kills up to 20 civilians in south Afghan bazaar

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(Updates with ISAF confirming 20 dead in paragraph 4)

By Ismail Sameem

KANDAHAR, Afghanistan, Jan 14 (Reuters) - A suicide attack in a crowded bazaar killed as many as 20 civilians and wounded 13 more in Afghanistan's restive southern Uruzgan province on Thursday, government and army officials said.

The blast happened before lunch in a crowded section of the shopping arcade, and three of the victims were children, provincial police chief Juma Gul Himat told Reuters by phone.

President Hamid Karzai strongly condemned the explosion in Deh Rawud district, which his office said killed 16.

But a spokesman for NATO-led forces in Afghanistan and a senior Afghan army officer in Uruzgan, General Abdul Hameed, both put the toll at 20.

"The bomber had explosives attached to a waistcoat. He was spotted by a guard of the money market which is inside the bazaar and then he blew himself up, killing 20 civilians including the guard," Hameed told Reuters by phone.

The interior ministry said the bomber's target was not clear.

The Taliban regularly uses suicide attacks as weapons, mostly aimed at foreign or government troops, but because they often detonate in residential areas non-combatants are frequently the victims, the United Nations said in a recent report.

It listed as among the most deadly a truck bomb in Kandahar that reportedly failed to reach its planned destination and detonated in a residential area, killing at least 46 civilians.

A suicide bomber also killed 10 civilians in an Uruzgan market in November, when his vest exploded after he was fired on by troops. He was trying to attack a convoy of Afghan security forces at the time.

The overall number of civilians killed by anti-government forces in 2009 rose 40 percent from a year earlier to more than 1,600, the U.N. report said.

The number of non-combatants who died last year at the hands of NATO-led and government security forces fell by around a quarter, after a strong push by Western military leaders to cut back on the human cost of their presence in Afghanistan.

But 2009 was still the deadliest overall for both civilians and foreign troops since the ouster of the Taliban by U.S.-backed Afghan forces in 2001, despite a rising influx of NATO-led trying to turn the tide against the insurgency.

This year has also been bloody, with 22 foreign troops killed so far. Fighting, which usually abates once heavy snowfalls arrive, has continued because of an unusually mild winter. (Additional reporting and writing by Sayed Salahuddin; Editing by Emma Graham-Harrison and Sanjeev Miglani) (For more Reuters coverage of Afghanistan and Pakistan, see: http://www.reuters.com/news/globalcoverage/afghanistanpakistan)

(sayed.salahuddin@thomsonreuters.com; Kabul newsroom: +93 799 335 285))

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