- Associated Press - Sunday, November 6, 2011

KABUL, Afghanistan (AP) — Two suicide bombers targeted worshippers on a key Muslim festival in northern Afghanistan, killing seven, including two local police commanders, officials said Sunday.

The bombers struck as Muslims were leaving a mosque on the outskirts of Old Baghlan City after prayers at the start of the Eid al-Adha, the Feast of the Sacrifice.

At least 18 other people were taken to hospitals with injuries from the attack in Hassin Tal, about 6 miles east of the city.

One bomber blew himself up, and the second was captured before he could set off his explosives, said Lal Mohammad Ahmadzai, spokesman for the regional police commander in the north.

The bombings raise questions about the ability of Afghan forces to tackle the insurgency head-on without their NATO partners. NATO is working to hand over full security responsibilities to Afghan forces before the end of 2014, when the coalition plans to withdraw its combat troops.

NATO officials say attacks such as Sunday’s bombing do little more than grab headlines and have little impact on the balance of strength between the government and the insurgents.

Kamen Khan, the police chief in Old Baghlan City, said one of the two dead local police commanders was a well-known local leader named Abdul who, like many Afghans, goes only by one name.

There was no immediate claim of responsibility, but the Taliban, against whom NATO has waged a decade-long war, routinely targets Afghan officials and security forces as well as international forces.

In his Eid message two days ago, Taliban leader Mullah Omar said his fighters must protect Afghan civilians, who are dying in rising numbers, so the insurgency can maintain good relations with the population.

U.S. Marine Gen. John Allen, the top commander of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan, condemned the bombing and challenged Mullah Omar to do so, too.

“If Mullah Omar is serious about his call upon the Taliban to eliminate acts against civilians, he, too, should condemn this publicly,” Gen. Allen said.

Separately, NATO said that two of its service members were killed this weekend, raising to 495 the number of coalition troops killed in the country so far this year. One was killed in an insurgent attack in the south on Saturday, and one died in another attack by militants Sunday in the west. NATO provided no other details.

As the U.S.-led coalition and its Afghan partners have focused their operations on Taliban strongholds in the south and east, the insurgency has carried out an increasing number of attacks in the north and west.

Shortly before the morning attack, Afghan President Hamid Karzai greeted Afghans on the holiday. Breaking with past speeches marking the occasion, he made no mention of reconciliation with the Taliban and did not call on its leaders to break from the insurgency.

Ethnic minorities who reside outside southern Afghanistan, where the Taliban is at its strongest, are the most resistant to efforts to reconcile with the insurgents.

Minorities worry that Mr. Karzai, a Pashtun, will make too many concessions to the Taliban to shore up his Pashtun base in crafting a peace deal to end the war. Assassinations of prominent northerners are likely to erode their already minimal appetite for a peace settlement.

Five leaders affiliated with the Northern Alliance, a coalition mostly composed of non-Pashtun minorities who have fought the Taliban since 1996, have been killed in a little more than a year.

Later Sunday, Mr. Karzai met with Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard, who made an unannounced trip to the country.

Ms. Gillard’s trip comes after an Afghan National Army soldier opened fire during a parade at a base in southern Kandahar province on Oct. 29, killing three Australian soldiers and wounding seven others. Australia has about 1,500 troops in Afghanistan. The attack brought Australia’s death toll from the conflict to 32.

Associated Press writers Tarek El-Tablawy and Deb Riechmann contributed to this article.

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