An Afghan tractor loaded with farm produce follows a convoy of U.S. armored… (Romeo Gacad, AFP/Getty…)
Reporting from Kabul, Afghanistan — A team of insurgent suicide bombers and gunmen struck a provincial capital Thursday, killing as many as 21 people in an audacious attack that underscored deteriorating security conditions across Afghanistan's restive south.
Women and children accounted for about half the dead, Afghan officials said. The toll also included at least three policemen and an Afghan journalist. About three dozen people were reported injured.
The Taliban claimed responsibility for the strike in Tarin Kot, the capital of Oruzgan province. Oruzgan borders Kandahar province, where a wave of violence in recent weeks included Wednesday's assassination of the mayor of Kandahar city.
The bombings in Tarin Kot, all apparently aimed at government installations, were followed by fierce gun battles that continued for hours, causing residents to flee in panic. Thursday afternoon marks the end of the Afghan workweek, and the town center was crowded with people when the assailants struck about 1 p.m.
Reflecting the degree of chaos, officials gave differing death tolls even hours after the attack. The Interior Ministry put fatalities at 21, excluding the assailants, while the office of President Hamid Karzai reported 18 civilians and members of the security forces killed.
NATO forces provided air support to Afghan officials responding to the attack, Western military officials said. Last month, an insurgent strike on a landmark hotel in the capital, Kabul, ended only with the aid of NATO troops and helicopters.
Although Western military commanders assert that they have deprived Taliban fighters of many of their bases of operation in the south, the insurgents have continued to stage complex urban attacks. They have also carried out a series of assassinations, mainly directed at government and security officials.
Last week, a former governor of Oruzgan who was a senior aide to Karzai was shot dead at his Kabul home, and the week before that, Karzai's half-brother, Ahmed Wali Karzai, was assassinated at his Kandahar compound.
The Taliban claimed that six "martyrdom-seeking" attackers had taken part in the raid in Tarin Kot. A spokesman, Qari Yousaf Ahmadi, said they were equipped with both light and heavy weapons.
The Interior Ministry put the number of attackers at seven, and said five suicide bombers set off their explosives as they tried to overrun installations including the governor's compound and a police base. At the same time, a remote-controlled bomb planted on a motorcycle went off near police headquarters, the ministry said in a statement.
The government condemned what it described as a brutal attack carried out by "enemies of the people," its usual phrase for the Taliban and other insurgents.
The first six months of this year were the war's deadliest for noncombatants, with civilian deaths increasing by 15% over the first half of 2010, the United Nations reported earlier this month. Many of the attacks aimed at Western troops and government installations kill and maim civilian bystanders instead.
Special correspondent Aimal Yaqubi contributed to this report from Kabul.