- The Washington Times - Monday, February 18, 2008

From combined dispatches

KANDAHAR, Afghanistan — Witnesses say police fired into a crowd of people fleeing a suicide bombing yesterday, adding to the death toll in perhaps the deadliest attack since the Taliban was ousted in 2001.

As many as 80 people were killed in the bomb blast, which occurred in the midst of a crowd that had gathered in a barren field to witness organized dog fights. Several police and a prominent militia leader were among those killed in the crowd.

Kandahar governor Assadullah Khalid blamed the attack on “enemies of Afghanistan,” normally a reference to the Taliban. However, Taliban spokesman Qari Yousef Ahmadi was quoted by the Associated Press saying: “That is not our work, and I will not take responsibility for it.”

Dog fighting — which was banned by the Taliban — is popular in Afghanistan but seldom ends in the death of either dog.

Fourteen policemen and six children were among the spectators killed in the explosion outside Kandahar, according to police. Several Afghan police trucks were crumpled by the force of the explosion.

Abdul Hakim Jan, the leader of a local militia, was among the victims, and officials speculate he may have been the target of the bombing.

Witnesses told Reuters news agency that some of Mr. Jan’s bodyguards fired into the crowd as they fled from the blast, causing additional casualties.

“In my mind, there were no Taliban to attack after the blast but the bodyguards were shooting anyway,” said Faizullah Qari Gar, a resident of Kandahar who was at the dog fight.

Reporters were not allowed to talk to the wounded in hospitals and officials had no comment about the reports of police firing.

Police gunfire is also believed to have contributed to the death toll in the most serious attack prior to yesterday’s, when 75 persons including six politicians were killed in November in the northern province of Baghlan.

There were varying accounts of yesterday’s toll. Kandahar Gov. Asadullah Khalid said 80 persons died, while the Health Ministry said 70 were killed and 70 wounded. The Interior Ministry first said 80 died and then revised the toll to 65.

Mr. Jan was the provincial police chief in Kandahar in the early 1990s and the only commander in the province to stand up against the Taliban during its rule, said Khalid Pashtun, a parliamentarian who represents Kandahar.

“Hakim Jan is one of the important, prominent jihadi commanders in Kandahar,” Mr. Pashtun said. “There were so many people gathered and of course the Taliban and al Qaeda usually target this kind of important person.”

Mr. Jan was recently appointed the commander of an auxiliary police force in Arghandab, a strategic area north of Kandahar. The area was overrun briefly by the Taliban late last year after the local leader, Mullah Naqibullah, died of heart attack.

Dog fights are a popular form of entertainment in Afghanistan and the fights can attract hundreds of spectators who cram into a tight circle.

Afghans place discreet wagers on the dogs, the reason the Taliban banned the sport during its 1996-2001 rule.

Fighting dogs in Afghanistan — German shepherds, bully kuttas and Afghan mastiffs — have clipped ears and tails and carry the scars of battle. The dogs do not fight to the death but rather until one dog pins the other or one runs away.

Kandahar — the Taliban’s former stronghold and Afghanistan’s second-largest city — has been the scene of fierce battles between NATO forces, primarily from Canada and the United States, and Taliban fighters during the past two years.

The province, one of the country’s largest opium poppy regions, could again be a flash point in the increasingly violent 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 forces in the country, is sending an additional 3,200 Marines in April, most of whom are expected to be stationed in Kandahar during their seven-month tour.

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