Suicide bomber kills 21 Afghans


KABUL, Afghanistan -- A suicide car bomber killed at least 21 Afghans yesterday, many of them children, near a mosque in southern Kandahar province, according to Afghan and NATO authorities.

The blast in the village of Panjwayi, a Taliban stronghold, came three days after NATO took command of the counterinsurgency war in the region and as Canadian troops moved through the area, the NATO-led force in southern Afghanistan confirmed.

Most of the casualties were children ages 12 to 15 who were leaving a mosque where they had been studying the Quran, the Islamic holy book, said Yousuf Stanizai, spokesman for the Afghan interior ministry. The explosion wounded another 13 people, and two shops burned to the ground, he added.

"We believe local Afghans were the target because the car exploded in the most crowded area of the city," Stanizai said.

Canadian forces launched an offensive in Panjwayi last month in an effort to clear insurgents from the area. Earlier yesterday, a Canadian soldier was killed by a roadside bomb in another part of Kandahar province.

A North Atlantic Treaty Organization force, headed by British Army Lt. Gen. David Richards, took over command from the U.S. of troops in southern Afghanistan on Monday morning.

American troops are part of the NATO force, which is operating in six southern provinces across Afghanistan, an insurgent stronghold. The mission is NATO's first ground combat operation in the alliance's 57-year history.

The Pentagon announced Wednesday that it is sending 11,000 troops, including a combat brigade from the 82nd Airborne Division, to replace forces being rotated out of Afghanistan.

The U.S. has about 22,000 troops in Afghanistan. In Washington yesterday, Gen. Peter Pace, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told reporters that "the U.S. contribution has stayed stable and will remain stable" despite a planned reduction of at least 3,000 troops announced late last year, the Associated Press reported.

Early yesterday, insurgents launched two roadside bomb attacks against Canadian troops in the NATO force, killing one soldier and wounding four others.

The bombs were planted along Highway 1, which forms part of a ring road joining Afghanistan's main population centers. It is a vital link between the southern city of Kandahar and Kabul, the Afghan capital.

The first attack on a Canadian armored vehicle occurred at 4:20 a.m. yesterday, near the village of Pashmul, on a stretch of highway about 18 miles west of Kandahar that Canadian troops have dubbed "ambush alley." It killed one Canadian soldier and wounded another. Three hours later, a second improvised explosive device wounded three Canadian soldiers in an armored vehicle.

The 241-mile stretch of Highway 1 between Kandahar and Kabul was rebuilt in 2003 with more than $190 million in U.S. aid. The road project was an early centerpiece of the Bush administration's multibillion-dollar effort to rebuild Afghanistan and end its war.

Canadian troops are trying to secure the highway against stepped-up attacks by Taliban and allied insurgents. The effort is part of a broader offensive that has seen the heaviest fighting since U.S. and Afghan forces toppled the Taliban in late 2001.

Paul Watson writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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