- Associated Press - Wednesday, June 6, 2012

KANDAHAR, AFGHANISTAN — Three suicide attackers blew themselves up Wednesday in the largest city in southern Afghanistan, killing 22 people and wounding at least 50 others in a dusty marketplace that was turned into a gruesome scene of blood and bodies.

In the east, Afghan officials and residents said a pre-dawn NATO airstrike targeting militants killed civilians celebrating a wedding, including women and children, although a NATO forces spokesman said they had no reports of civilians being killed in the overnight raid to capture a local Taliban leader.

Also in the east, NATO said two service members were killed in a helicopter crash. The coalition did not disclose any other information about the crash, but a senior U.S. defense official at the Pentagon said two American pilots were killed in the crash in Ghazni province.

The official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to disclose details of the crash, said there was no indication of enemy activity in the area at the time.

Taliban spokesman Zabiullah Mujahid claimed in an email that the insurgents shot down the helicopter.

Taliban spokesman Qari Yousef Ahmadi claimed responsibility for the attack in Kandahar, the capital of Kandahar province and the spiritual birthplace of the insurgency.

In the past two years, tens of thousands of U.S.-led coalition troops have flooded Taliban strongholds in the south, and have largely succeeded in boosting security there.

But the Taliban have proven resilient, continuing to conduct suicide attacks and targeted assassinations of pro-government figures, opening up new fronts in the north and west and stepping up attacks in the east.

Afghan President Hamid Karzai condemned the attack on innocent civilians, saying it proved the “enemy is getting weaker because they are killing innocent people.”

The explosion occurred about three miles from the main gate of the massive military installation run by the U.S.-led coalition and about 500 yards from an Afghan military base.

One suicide bomber detonated a three-wheeled motorbike filled with explosives first, said Rahmatullah Atrafi, deputy police chief in Kandahar province. Then, as people rushed to assist the casualties, two other suicide bombers on foot walked up to the site and blew themselves up, he said.

Eight private security guards were among the 22 killed along a main road on the east side of the city, he said.

Small shops and private security company offices line one side of the road. Large trucks that supply logistics to Kandahar Air Field regularly park along the other side.

The explosions left a bloody scene of body parts, shoes, soda cans, snacks and debris from three shops that were destroyed.

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