Kandahar: A sophisticated Taliban assault on a key southern Afghan city killed 35 people, officials said on Sunday as the militants claimed it was in revenge for plans to wipe them out.
A series of massive explosions rocked Kandahar late Saturday in what appears to be one of the biggest coordinated assaults by the militants since their insurgency began more than eight years ago.
The Interior Ministry`s spokesman said the dead included police officers and civilians, and that another 57 people were injured.
"A total of 35 people were killed -- 13 police officers and 22 civilians," Zemarai Bashery told reporters, adding the injured included 40 civilians and 17 police officers.
The city had been hit by five suicide bomb attacks and improvised bomb explosions at 8 pm (1530 GMT) on Saturday, he said.
Kandahar`s provincial governor Turyalai Wisa earlier said 31 people were killed in seven blasts, which included two suicide car bomb attacks.
Wisa said at least 10 of the dead were attending a wedding party, and the death toll could rise as rescue workers were still searching rubble for bodies.
A Taliban spokesman, named as Yousuf Ahmadi, said the militants had carried out the attack, which began at Kandahar`s main prison and targeted other government buildings around the city.
Wisa said one of the blasts, a suicide car bomb, was outside the city prison -- scene of a major Taliban attack in mid-2008 which resulted in a mass breakout -- and another near provincial police headquarters.
Some of the explosions were caused by improvised explosive devices (IEDs), a specialty of the Taliban militants, who consider Kandahar their spiritual home.
Around 25 shops and up to seven houses near the prison were destroyed, Wisa said.
Another explosion took place early Sunday close to the Kandahar office of a Japanese construction company, injuring five employees, including four Pakistanis and one Afghan. No other details were available.
In a phone call from an undisclosed destination, the Taliban spokesman said the attacks were retaliation for comments by the commander of US and NATO forces in Afghanistan that Kandahar would be targeted in military efforts to eradicate the Taliban.
"This was an answer to General (Stanley) McChrystal, who announced Operation Omaid in Kandahar," Ahmadi said, referring to the name of the battle plan.
"This was to sabotage the operation and to show we can strike anywhere, any time we want," he said.
The attack comes as tens of thousands of extra troops are arriving in Afghanistan as part of a new US-led counter-insurgency strategy aimed at speeding an end to the war on the Taliban uprising, now in its ninth year.
The first major offensive of the new strategy is taking place in Helmand province, which neighbours Kandahar province, and US military leaders say Taliban strongholds in Kandahar are among future targets.
US Defence Secretary Robert Gates visited southern Afghanistan last week, where he told US troops to brace for a tough fight as generals laid plans to battle the Taliban in Kandahar.
"Once again you will be the tip of the spear," he said, in the latest indication of US-led preparations to take on the Taliban in their heartland.
Kandahar, capital of the eponymous province, is symbolic of the Taliban uprising blighting the country. It is the seat of the movement and was its capital during the extremists` rule, which ended in 2001 when US-led troops invaded.
Remnants of the movement have since regrouped to wage an increasingly deadly insurgency, which last year killed more than 500 foreign troops.
The insurgents have supplemented suicide vehicles -- usually sedans and off-road vehicles -- with IEDs, which have taken an enormous toll on the foreign troops leading the fight.
US President Barack Obama and NATO allies have pledged to boost troops to 150,000, from 121,000, by August this year, with most of the new deployments headed to the volatile south.
Operation Mushtarak, taking place in a poppy-growing plain of central Helmand -- where Taliban militants have for years controlled the Marjah farming region along with drug traffickers -- is the first test of the strategy.
Helmand is the source of most of the world`s heroin in an illicit industry worth up to USD 3 billion a year, which funds the insurgency and has transformed Afghanistan into a narco-state.