KABUL, Afghanistan | A Taliban suicide bomber attacked officials leaving a mosque east of the capital Wednesday, killing the country’s deputy intelligence chief and 22 other people in a major blow to Afghanistan’s security forces.
The brazen assault occurred as tensions are running high after last month’s divisive presidential election and a sharp rise in U.S. casualties.
A Taliban spokesman took responsibility for the bombing, which happened as Afghan dignitaries were leaving the main mosque in Mehterlam, 60 miles east of Kabul, after ceremonies marking the Islamic holy month of Ramadan.
The bomber approached the crowd on foot and detonated an explosive belt, killing 23 people, including Abdullah Laghmani, deputy chief of Afghanistan’s National Directorate for Security and the target of the attack, according to provincial spokesman Sayed Ahmad Safi.
The chairman of the local provincial council and the executive director of the local governor’s office also died in the blast, Mr. Safi said.
Mr. Laghmani, a close ally of President Hamid Karzai, was a major figure in Afghanistan’s security and intelligence apparatus, and his death was a setback to Afghan efforts to curb Taliban and other extremist activity.
Mr. Laghmani formerly served as intelligence chief for Kandahar, the former Taliban spiritual capital in southern Afghanistan, and fought with a Tajik-dominated alliance that helped oust the Islamist movement from power during the U.S.-led invasion of 2001.
In his most recent post, Mr. Laghmani directed intelligence operations especially in eastern Afghanistan and appointed local security officials throughout the area.
Mr. Karzai said in a statement that the “enemy” tried to kill “brave and hardworking” officials, but others would take their place.
The Karzai administration is already under fire for suspected fraud during the Aug. 20 presidential election. With votes tallied from 60 percent of the polling stations, the country’s election commission said Wednesday that Mr. Karzai is leading with 47.3 percent, followed by ex-Foreign Minister Abdullah Abdullah with 32.6 percent.
Mr. Karzai must win more than 50 percent of the votes to avoid a two-man runoff.
But the balloting was marred by fraud charges from Mr. Abdullah and others in the 36-candidate field as well as low voter turnout, especially in southern Pashtun areas where Taliban influence is strong but where the incumbent was expected to draw most of his votes.
Faced with a potential political crisis in the middle of a war, envoys from the United States and other major countries conferred Wednesday in Paris on how to rescue their costly effort to rebuild Afghanistan.
In a sign of progress, the United Nations said Wednesday that Afghanistan’s opium production fell 10 percent last year and prices are at their lowest in a decade. A key finding of the 2009 Afghan Opium Survey was that cultivation in Helmand province, a Taliban stronghold where U.S. and British troops launched major operations this summer, dropped by about a third from 2007 to 2008. Helmand produces almost 70 percent of Afghanistan’s opium.