KANDAHAR, Afghanistan (AP) — The killing of five diplomats from the United Arab Emirates in a bombing in southern Afghanistan marks the deadliest attack ever for the young nation's diplomatic corps, though it's too soon to tell who was behind it or if the Gulf envoys were even the targets.
The federation of seven sheikhdoms, founded in 1971 on the Arabian Peninsula, said it would fly the nation's flag at half-staff for three days in honor of the dead from the attack Tuesday in Kandahar.
The Taliban denied planting the bomb, even as the insurgents claimed other blasts Tuesday that killed at least 45 people. No other group immediately claimed responsibility for the attack in Kandahar, a province in Afghanistan's Taliban heartland.
The bomb targeted a guesthouse of Kandahar Gov. Homayun Azizi, who was wounded in the assault along with UAE Ambassador Juma Mohammed Abdullah al-Kaabi. The attack killed 11 people and wounded 18, said Gen. Abdul Razeq, Kandahar's police chief, who was praying nearby at the time of the blast.
Razeq said investigators believe someone hid the bomb inside a sofa at the guesthouse. He said an ongoing construction project there may have allowed militants to plant the bomb.
"Right now we cannot say anything about who is behind this attack," he told The Associated Press, while adding that several suspects had been arrested.
On Wednesday, broken glass from the powerful blast still littered the blood-stained ground outside of the guesthouse, with thick black soot still visible on the building. Some furniture sat outside, apparently moved as part of the construction.
Dubai's ruler, Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, who is also the UAE prime minister and vice president, offered condolences for the families of the dead and condemned the attack.
"There is no human, moral or religious justification for the bombing and killing of people trying to help" others, he wrote on Twitter.
On the Afghan side, authorities said the dead included two lawmakers, a deputy governor from Kandahar and an Afghan diplomat stationed at its embassy in Washington.
The attack inside the heavily guarded compound represents a major breach of security, even in Afghanistan, a country long torn by war. Afghan President Ashraf Ghani on Wednesday condemned the attack and ordered an investigation.
The Taliban is usually quick to take credit for attacks, particularly those targeting the government or security forces. They claimed attacks earlier on Tuesday in Kabul at a compound of government and legislative offices that killed at least 38 people and wounded dozens. Another Taliban-claimed suicide bombing on Tuesday killed seven people in Lashkar Gah, the capital of Helmand province.
But on Wednesday, the Taliban issued a short statement blaming an "internal local rivalry" for the Kandahar attack.
The Taliban have denied some attacks in the past that diplomats and security forces later attributed to the group. Other insurgent groups, including an Islamic State affiliate, also operate Afghanistan.
A Taliban attack targeting Emirati officials would be surprising. The UAE was one of only three countries, along with Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, to recognize the Taliban government during its five-year rule of Afghanistan.
Emirati combat troops deployed to Afghanistan after the 2001 U.S.-led invasion that toppled the Taliban, who had harbored al-Qaida before and after the Sept. 11 attacks. The UAE had troops there for years as part of the NATO-led mission, training members of the Afghan armed forces and often winning the support of locals by praying with them in community mosques and respecting their traditions as fellow Muslims.
Multiple daily commercial flights link the countries, with Dubai serving as an important commercial hub for Afghan businessmen. Over the years, Taliban and Afghan officials also have met in Dubai to try to start peace talks.
Although the UAE is only 45 years old, Emirati diplomats have come under attack in the past, some felled by assassins' bullets.
Saif Ghubash, the UAE's first minister of state for foreign affairs, died after being shot in an October 1977 attack at Abu Dhabi International Airport, an attack that apparently targeted Syrian Foreign Minister Abdul-Halim Khaddam. Khaddam later blamed the attack on Iraq.
In 1984, the UAE's ambassador to France was assassinated outside his Paris home by a gunman. A diplomatic club was named in honor of the slain envoy, Khalifa al-Mubarak, in the Emirati capital, Abu Dhabi, in 2015.
Another Emirati diplomat was wounded in a shooting in Rome in 1984. Reports at the time linked those two attacks to the Arab Revolutionary Brigades, a Palestinian militant group.
Abu Dhabi's powerful crown prince, Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, said Tuesday's attack wouldn't stop the UAE's humanitarian efforts abroad.
He wrote on Twitter: "We will not be discouraged by despicable terrorist acts carried out by the forces of evil and darkness."
Gambrell reported from Dubai, United Arab Emirates. Associated Press writers Rahim Faiez and Amir Shah in Kabul, Afghanistan, and Adam Schreck in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, contributed to this report.
Follow Jon Gambrell on Twitter at www.twitter.com/jongambrellap . His work can be found at http://apne.ws/2galNpz .