At least ten people picnicking by a stream in southern Afghanistan to celebrate the Afghan new year were killed in a suicide bomb attack today, police and officials said. A suicide bomber on a three-wheeled motorcycle had apparently been trying to blow up an Afghan army convoy, but missed his target, a spokesman for the government of Helmand province said. "It was a suicide bomber who detonated a motorcycle as an Afghan National Army (ANA) vehicle was passing by," Daud Ahmadi, spokesman for the Helmand provincial government said.
"The blast killed ten civilians and injured seven others," he said, adding that it took place around 1.45pm local time in the Gereshk district of Helmand, a cauldron of Taliban insurgent activity. The blast struck a bridge in the Bughra-pul area of Gereshk, on the main motorway between capital Kabul and Herat, Afghanistan's second city, he said. Beneath the bridge, crowds had gathered on the banks of a stream to mark Nowruz, the Zoroastrian new year which falls on the March 21 equinox.
Helmand's provincial public heath director, Anayatullah Ghafari, said two children were among nine wounded taken to a local hospital. Gereshk was the target of a military campaign in mid-2009 that eliminated Taliban insurgents in control of the area, along with local drugs cartels. Afghan and Nato military chiefs have recently hailed Gereshk as a model of success in clearing out insurgents and replacing their harsh style of justice with government security and civil services.
A military operation is under way in Marjah, about 70 kilometres south of Gereshk, as part of a counterinsurgency strategy aimed at clearing the Taliban out of Helmand, where they control a massive drugs industry. Preparatory operations, led by US Marines and involving Nato and Afghan troops, have already begun in neighbouring Kandahar province, also a Taliban hot spot and the birthplace of their extremist movement.
More than 120,000 US and Nato troops are being reinforced for the operations, expected to hit 150,000 within months, in an effort to speed up an end to the war and allow foreign troops to withdraw from mid-2011. Afghanistan is just one of many Central Asian states marking Nowruz, though security is tight across the country amid fears of Taliban strikes which have been increasingly staged on national holidays and religious festivals.
The most recent major attack on Kabul occurred on February 26, the Prophet Mohammed's birthday, when two guesthouses were targeted in a suicide assault that killed 16 people, including Indians who appeared to be the main target. In Mazar-i-Sharif, the main city of northern Afghanistan that annually attracts tens of thousands to Nowruz celebrations at the Blue Mosque ? believed to be the grave of the fourth caliph Hazrat Ali ? police set up a series of roadblocks and checkpoints to prevent Taliban infiltration.
In eastern Khost province, which borders Pakistan, a roadside bomb ? a favoured weapon of the Taliban-linked insurgents ? killed two construction company guards when it hit their car today. Three other people were injured in the blast, said Amir Badshah Rahmatzai Mangal, head of the provincial public health department. Taliban attacks are the biggest killers of civilians in the Afghan war, according to the United Nations, with roadside bombs and suicide attacks indiscriminate in their collateral damage.