KABUL, Afghanistan -- An anti-Taliban militia leader was the apparent target of a suicide bombing yesterday in southern Afghanistan that left at least 80 people dead and dozens injured, authorities said.
The bombing at a dogfighting match just outside Kandahar was thought to have been the deadliest single suicide attack since the Taliban movement was driven from power more than six years ago.
Authorities said the apparent target was militia leader Abdul Hakim Jan, who was killed in the explosion. Some of the casualties might have been caused when Jan's bodyguards opened fire after the blast, even though there were no assailants in sight, witnesses said.
A tightly packed crowd of hundreds of men and boys had gathered in a dirt field on the city's edge to watch the dogfight when the bomber struck.
Dogfighting, though widely decried as barbaric, is popular in Afghanistan. It was banned under the Taliban because men place wagers on the dogs, which fight until one is pinned or runs away. The sport has made a comeback since the movement was toppled by the U.S.-led invasion in 2001.
Witnesses said the attack occurred without warning. "Suddenly a big explosion went off," said Mohammed Qasim, 23.
Qasim, contacted by telephone, said he saw corpses scattered everywhere and heard the wounded scream for help. Police vehicles parked nearby were incinerated.
Jan, a former provincial police chief, had defied the Taliban as the austere Islamist movement rose to prominence in the 1990s. More recently, he led a locally recruited force that worked in concert with Afghan police and soldiers. His fighters operated in Arghandab, an area just north of Kandahar that was seized by the Taliban last year, then recaptured by Afghan and NATO troops.
Kandahar's governor, Asadullah Khalid, told reporters that 80 people had been killed. A spokesman for the Health Ministry said dozens of others were hurt, many of them seriously.
Hospitals were overwhelmed, and Afghan police and soldiers donated blood for the injured.
Khalid blamed the attack on "the enemies of Afghanistan," a phrase authorities use to describe the Taliban.
A Taliban spokesman denied the militia was behind the attack. "That is not our work and I will not take responsibility for it," said Qari Yousef Ahmadi.
Local officials suggested the group might have been deterred from taking responsibility by the high civilian casualty count.
Kandahar province, a one-time Taliban stronghold, has been the focus of heavy fighting between insurgents and NATO troops for the past several years. It is one of the country's main producers of opium, with proceeds fueling the insurgency.
The province has been the scene of fierce battles between NATO forces, primarily from Canada and the United States, and Taliban fighters for the past two years.
Kandahar could again be a flash point in the increasingly violent Afghan conflict this year. Canada, which has 2,500 troops in Kandahar, has threatened to end its combat role in Afghanistan unless NATO countries provide an additional 1,000 troops to help the anti-Taliban drive there.
The U.S., which already has about 28,000 troops in the country, is sending another 3,200 Marines in April, most of whom are expected to be stationed in Kandahar during their seven-month tour.
Suicide bombings in Afghanistan have been creeping up steadily year after year, and last year reached more than 140, a record high.
Until now, the deadliest single bombing was one that occurred three months ago in the town of Baghlan, 110 miles north of the capital, Kabul. About 70 people, including dozens of schoolchildren and six lawmakers, died in that attack.
M. Karim Faiez and Laura King write for the Los Angeles Times.