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Tuesday, January 17, 2006 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Afghanistan violence up as security handoff in south nears

The Washington Post

KABUL, Afghanistan — At least two dozen Afghans were killed in a pair of suicide attacks in southern Afghanistan Monday, marking the deadliest day of suicide bombings here in the more than four years since the fall of the Taliban.

A recent surge in violence, marked by numerous suicide attacks, comes as the U.S. military prepares to hand over control of security in the volatile south to NATO, and just weeks before an international conference of countries weighing their commitment to Afghanistan. It also coincides with a renewed effort to go after al-Qaida and Taliban members in the lawless tribal region of neighboring Pakistan.

The larger of the two attacks took place in Spinboldak, a town on the Pakistan border, when a bomber drove his motorbike into a crowd of hundreds who had gathered at a festival to watch a wrestling match, according to Kandahar provincial Gov. Asadullah Khalid. That attack killed at least 20 people and injured several dozen more.

Earlier in the afternoon, a suicide bomber in downtown Kandahar near the city's main mosque had attacked an Afghan National Army vehicle, killing four soldiers and a civilian. Fourteen others were injured, according to a local hospital official.

Mohibur Rahman, an Afghan soldier who was in the vehicle directly behind the one that was hit, said he saw someone who looked to be in his teens dart in front of the convoy. "He lay down under the first vehicle and blew himself up," Rahman told Radio Azabi, a local station in Kandahar.

The attacks come during a fresh spate of violence in the south marked by numerous suicide attacks. On Sunday, a suicide bomber in Kandahar killed a senior Canadian diplomat and two other civilians. Earlier this month, a bomber killed 10 in Uruzgan province, just hundreds of yards from where the American ambassador had been holding a meeting, though the ambassador was not believed to be the attack's target.

The U.S. military is scheduled to hand over control of the region's security to NATO-led forces later this year, and security officials here believe terrorists are attempting to scare NATO nations into backing off their commitment. One country, the Netherlands, has been wavering over whether it really will send additional troops to the south, and its parliament is expected to vote soon.

Also looming on the horizon is a conference in London at which other countries will consider just how involved they will remain in Afghanistan's reconstruction.

The south "has been a focal point, and there are a variety of reasons," Afghan Defense Minister Rahim Wardak said. "It has to do with the London conference. And it has to do with the NATO takeover."

Monday's strikes came just hours after Afghan President Hamid Karzai told reporters at the presidential palace that the struggle against terrorism in Afghanistan is not over, despite some progress. The country continues to confront major security challenges from the Taliban, al-Qaida, drug lords and criminal elements.

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"Afghanistan's success does not mean that it is now fully on its own feet. It will take many, many more years before we can defend ourselves with our own means," Karzai said.

Insurgents in Afghanistan have shifted tactics in recent months, switching from head-to-head fights with international forces in the countryside to suicide attacks in urban areas. Despite a quarter-century of war, such attacks in Afghanistan have historically been relatively rare because of a cultural aversion to suicide. Just since September, however, there have been at least 25 suicide bombings.

Both Afghan and international officials insist the new strategy is a sign of desperation by insurgents who suffered devastating battlefield defeats last spring and summer. But those same officials are also concerned that terrorists here may be mimicking tactics in Iraq that have succeeded there in terrorizing much of the population.

Karzai said most of the suicide bombers in Afghanistan are foreigners, but that some Afghans have been involved. Intelligence information indicates, he said, that terrorist leaders are recruiting drug addicts to carry out the attacks and that some may not even realize they are being sent on suicide missions.

Karzai warned that Afghanistan could again become a staging post for terrorist strikes on Europe and America if international support wavers.

"We are in a joint struggle against terrorism, for us and for the international community," Karzai said. "If you don't defend yourself here, you will have to defend yourself back home, in European capitals and Americans' capitals."

The latest attacks came just days after the U.S. launched an attack by a Predator drone aimed at al-Qaida deputy Ayman al-Zawahri just across the border in Pakistan.

Kandahar Gov. Asadullah repeated an Afghan government claim that suicide attackers are being trained in Pakistan's frontier region, a tribal area where Taliban loyalists and al-Qaida members are thought to be hiding.

Pakistan's government says it is trying to root out Islamic extremists. But officials on both sides acknowledge it is relatively easy for extremists to cross back and forth along the mountainous border between the two countries.

Qari Mohammed Yusaf claims to speak for the Taliban, although his exact ties to the group's leadership are unclear. Yusaf said Taliban fighters had planted the bomb that struck the Afghan army convoy in Kandahar, but denied involvement in the Spinboldak attack.

"The Taliban didn't do this suicide attack. We are targeting coalition and government forces but we are not targeting civilians," he said in a phone call from an undisclosed location to an Associated Press reporter in Afghanistan.

Yusaf claimed responsibility for Sunday's attack on the Canadian envoy, which also wounded three Canadian soldiers and 10 other people. The ambush killed Glyn Berry, a 59-year-old senior diplomat with Canada's Foreign Affairs and the political director of a reconstruction team in Afghanistan.

Yusaf warned that "these attacks will continue for a long time. ... We will continue this strategy until all foreign forces leave Afghanistan."

Nine Canadians have died in Afghanistan. Four soldiers were mistakenly bombed by a U.S. fighter pilot in 2002 and four others have died in accidents.

Canadian Prime Minister Paul Martin expressed condolences to the victims' families while campaigning in Quebec and said the mission in Afghanistan is vital.

Canada has about 650 troops in Afghanistan, nearly all in Kandahar, and Ottawa plans to increase the Canadian military presence there to 2,000 next month as part of NATO's plans to expand its peacekeeping mission into the south.

Fighting normally eases during the winter, when snow blankets the region, but the past few weeks have seen a string of suicide bombings and other attacks.

A U.S. military spokesman, Col. James Yonts, said insurgents are making fewer direct assaults on military forces and moving to guerrilla-style attacks on less-protected targets.

"The enemy knows he cannot defeat us militarily," Yonts said. "He is shifting his tactics to soft targets. He will strike without warning and he will strike, as we have seen, unfortunately against civilians."

Additional information from The Associated Press and Reuters

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