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Truck bomb in Afghanistan kills 25, many of them children

Two U.S. soldiers also die in a separate bombing as violence grows in scattered areas of the nation.

July 10, 2009|Laura King

KABUL, AFGHANISTAN — A powerful truck bomb Thursday killed at least 25 people, more than half of them schoolchildren, in an eastern province near Kabul. Authorities speculated that the explosives-laden vehicle was intended for an attack in the Afghan capital.

Three U.S. soldiers were killed elsewhere by roadside bombs, the American military said, two in southern Afghanistan and one in the east.

The incidents followed a pattern of escalating violence in scattered areas across Afghanistan.

The truck blast took place before dawn in Lowgar province. The vehicle traveling on Afghanistan's main north-south highway apparently ran off the road and overturned. When Afghan police and civilians approached after daybreak and tried to right the truck, it blew up, the Interior Ministry said.

Most of the victims were civilians, including at least 13 students from a nearby elementary school, local officials said. The thunderous blast left a huge crater in the highway and debris over a wide area. Several nearby shops and homes collapsed.

The truck was piled high with timber, with the payload of explosives buried underneath, police said. Officials were trying to determine whether it was triggered remotely when police and other help arrived or it detonated when the truck was moved.

Ghulam Mustafa, the Lowgar police chief, said the driver had disappeared, and officials were looking into the possibility that the Taliban had been transporting the explosives to the capital.

Kabul, just north of the rural province, has been relatively calm. However, an explosion of this size and strength in a crowded area such as the capital would probably have caused many more casualties.

Over the last year, Lowgar gradually has become a hotbed of insurgent activity, alarming Western military officials and fostering the impression that Taliban militants were tightening a noose around Kabul. Travelers on the main road south out of the capital face a constant danger of ambush, abduction or banditry when passing through the province.

In an effort to weaken militants' grip on the area, U.S. troops from the 10th Mountain Division, based in Ft. Drum, N.Y., have been deployed in Lowgar and adjoining Wardak province for about six months. In addition, a "village guards" initiative has been set up in the two provinces, which Afghan and Western authorities say eventually may be expanded countrywide.

Under the program, residents have formed a kind of auxiliary police force to try to keep the insurgents from overrunning remote villages.

The latest bloodshed coincided with a major U.S. military offensive in the southern province of Helmand, which is a center of both the insurgency and the drug trade and is considered one of the most dangerous parts of the country.

In the last week, about 4,000 U.S. Marines have secured the lower Helmand River valley, and commanders say they plan to hold the territory with a string of new outposts and a concerted effort to reach out to mistrustful tribal elders and village leaders.

British, Canadian and Dutch troops also are fanned out across much of the south, and their casualties have increased in the last few weeks. An increase in troop fatalities usually occurs during the summer months, when insurgents are better able to move through mountain passes on the border with Pakistan, bringing in fighters and weapons.

American military officials have warned that the greater numbers of U.S. troops in Afghanistan, which will swell to 68,000 by year's end, would probably bring a commensurate increase in combat casualties.

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laura.king@latimes.com

Special correspondent M. Karim Faiez contributed to this report.

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