KABUL, AFGHANISTAN — An anti-Taliban militia leader was the apparent target of a suicide bombing Sunday 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 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 although 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 attack happened.
Dogfighting, though widely decried as barbaric, is extremely popular in Afghanistan. It was banned under the Taliban but made a comeback after 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 screaming 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. Purported Taliban spokesmen denied the group was behind the blast. Local officials suggested that the high civilian death count might have deterred it from claiming responsibility.
Kandahar province, a onetime Taliban stronghold, has been the focus of heavy fighting between insurgents and North Atlantic Treaty Organization troops for several years. It is one of the country's main producers of opium, with sales proceeds fueling the insurgency.
Suicide bombings in Afghanistan have been creeping up steadily and last year reached more than 140, a record high.
Until now, the deadliest suicide 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, five teachers and six lawmakers, died in that attack.
Special correspondent Faiez reported from Kabul and staff writer King from Islamabad, Pakistan.