Kabul: A provincial governor and at least 19 other people were killed by a massive bomb blast inside a packed mosque during Friday prayers in northern Afghanistan, where insurgents have stepped up violence amid intensified NATO-Afghan military operations.
Thirty-five people were wounded in the explosion while praying at the Shirkat mosque in Takhar province, said Interior Ministry spokesman Zemeri Bashary.
Gen. Shah Jahan Noori, the provincial police chief, said the governor of neighboring Kunduz province, Mohammad Omar, was killed along with 19 other people. The bomb was meant to kill Omar, who regularly attends Friday prayers at the mosque, Takhar Gov. Abdul Jabar Taqwa said.
"He was the target, and the terrorists were able to kill him," Taqwa said. "This is a big loss for us because Mohammad Omar was a very brave and good governor."
A survivor of the blast said he believed a suicide attacker sitting next to the governor detonated explosives.
"Suddenly a very strong explosion happened inside the mosque," said the survivor, Abdul Haq, who suffered shrapnel wounds. "I think the suicide attacker was on the right side of the governor."
Body parts were scattered around the mosque, its walls scarred by shrapnel. Wounded people wrapped in bloodstained blankets were rushed to the hospital. One man, his face charred black from the blast, was carried on a stretcher.
No group claimed responsibility, but the Taliban have targeted Omar previously.
One of Afghanistan`s 34 provincial governors, he survived at least three previous assassination attempts, including ambushes and roadside bombs. A bombing along a main highway in May 2009 slightly wounded him. Omar blamed the "enemies of peace and security."
In an Afghan television interview last week, Omar said if security wasn`t increased in Kunduz province, insurgents would not only be a threat to northern Afghanistan, but to neighboring nations as well. Kunduz was being used by Afghan militants as well as foreign fighters to stage attacks throughout the region, he said.
Afghan officials are prime targets for the Taliban and other militant groups that have instituted an assassination campaign against people who work with the Afghan government or NATO forces.
On Sept. 28, a suicide bomber killed a deputy provincial governor and five others in Ghazni in eastern Afghanistan. The bomber rammed a motorized rickshaw loaded with explosives into a convoy taking Deputy Gov. Khazim Allayar to his office in Ghazni city. His son, a nephew, a bodyguard and two civilians also were killed.
President Hamid Karzai strongly condemned Friday`s attack. "Omar was ... an honest person. He was killed while he was praying. ... This act is against Islam and humanity," a statement issued by Karzai`s office said.
NATO and the United States also denounced the bombing.
"It`s unconscionable that anyone would attack a mosque. It`s clear the insurgents have no respect for the most holy of Islamic places," U.S. Navy Rear Admiral Greg Smith said in a statement.
Northern Takhar has been the scene of escalating violence amid intensified military operations by NATO and Afghan forces in recent days.
Sixteen militants were killed in air raids and ground fighting overnight Wednesday in the Darqad, Yangi Qala and Khwaja Bahawuddin districts of Takhar, Noori said. More than a dozen insurgents were wounded.
Noori said his convoy was ambushed early Thursday and four attackers were killed in a gunbattle that lasted several hours.
Meanwhile, NATO helicopters killed six Afghan militiamen Friday in eastern Khost province that borders Pakistan, said Youqib Khan, the deputy provincial police chief.
The shooting sparked angry protests with hundreds of villagers shouting "Death to America" and "Long live the Taliban" as they carried the bodies to the provincial governor`s home.
"What I confirm now is six local security forces were killed by NATO`s helicopters. NATO told us the militiamen fired first. We don`t know whom to blame," Khan said.
The militiamen, part of a community security force, were not affiliated with the Afghan government.
A NATO statement said five people with weapons moving from a "previously identified enemy position" were killed by NATO helicopters. The alliance said it was aware of civilian casualty allegations, and a team was being sent to investigate.
NATO helicopter strikes on Pakistani territory killed two Pakistani border guards on Sept. 30. In apparent retaliation, Pakistan shut a key border crossing used by NATO and the U.S to bring supplies to forces in Afghanistan.
In other violence, an insurgent attack killed a NATO service member and two others died in separate roadside bombings in southern Afghanistan on Friday, the alliance said, without giving their nationalities or precise locations.
One of the soldiers was British and died in an explosion in Helmand province, Britain`s defense ministry said. The deaths brought to 19 the number of NATO forces killed this month.
Fighting has surged in southern Afghanistan since NATO and Afghan forces launched operation Dragon Strike last month in areas around Kandahar city — 260 miles (420 kilometers) southwest of the capital, Kabul — to flush out militants and destroy their strongholds. Southern Afghanistan is the birthplace of the Taliban, and the hard-line militia`s presence is strong there.
Thursday was the ninth anniversary of the American invasion of Afghanistan. At least 2,007 NATO service members have died fighting since Oct. 7, 2001, according to an AP count.
Also in the south, armed men burst into a mosque and shot dead religious scholar Maulvi Mohammad during Friday prayers in Kandahar city, said Hakmatullah Hakmat, a senior cleric in Kandahar province. Fifty-eight clerics have been killed by unidentified gunmen in the last eight years in the province, he said.
A former district chief, Habibullah Aghonzada, was gunned down by assailants as he prayed at a mosque in Kandahar city on Monday.
NATO also said Friday a senior Taliban leader accused of commanding an "assassination cell" in Kandahar city was captured Thursday. The unidentified insurgent may be linked to the killing of Kandahar`s deputy mayor, Noor Ahman, on Monday, as well as an Afghan military officer, the alliance said in a statement.
Another Taliban commander was detained the same day in Kandahar province`s Zhari district after a gunbattle left one insurgent dead, NATO said.
Four militants were killed and one captured by an Afghan-NATO force in eastern Wardak province`s Chaki Wardak district Thursday, NATO said. The force took small-arms fire from Taliban fighters in several compounds, and retaliatory fire killed the four, it said.
A joint force also recovered and destroyed almost 2,200 pounds (1,000 kilograms) of narcotics during two operations Thursday, it said. The drugs — including heroin, opium, morphine, and hashish — were found in Kandahar and Nangarhar provinces, NATO said.