KANDAHAR, Afghanistan (AP) — A huge suicide car bombing outside a bank in Afghanistan's southern Helmand province on Thursday targeted Afghan troops and government employees waiting to collect their salaries ahead of a major Muslim holiday, killing at least 29 people, officials said.
Most of the casualties in the explosion near the Kabul Bank in the provincial capital of Lashkar Gah were civilians, according to Hayatullah Hayat, the provincial governor in Helmand. The bombing also wounded at least 60 people, he said.
No group immediately claimed responsibility for the attack but Helmand has been at the center of bitter battles between the Taliban and Afghan security forces, aided by NATO troops.
The insurgents, believed to control nearly 80 percent of the province's countryside, have increasingly been pressing a push onto Lashkar Gah and its environs in efforts to take the city.
In recent weeks, the Taliban have overrun Helmand's key Sangin district, where both British and U.S. troops had fought for years to keep them at bay.
The attacker struck as scores of people, including many Afghan soldiers and civil servants, were waiting near the Kabul Bank to collect their salaries ahead of the Eid -al-Fitr holiday, which follows the holy month of Ramdan, expected to end later this weekend.
Esmatullah, an Afghan border policeman, who was at the scene of the explosion said the noise from the blast was deafening. He said many are missing in the ensuing chaos as witnesses, survivors and ambulances struggled to ferry first the most seriously wounded to hospital.
"We are taking children to the hospital," said Esmatullah, who like many Afghans uses only one name.
Twelve-year-old Hosnia, was crying outside the bank as she searched for her father who had brought her to buy shoes ahead of the Muslim holiday.
"I couldn't find anyone, my brother and my father," she said. "My father told me he will take me to buy shoes. We came here and then there was the explosion."
President Ashraf Ghani called the attack deplorable, and assailed the attackers as "enemies of humanity." He said the relentless assaults that have been carried out throughout the country are particularly offensive during the holy month of Ramadan, when the faithful seek forgiveness for their wrongdoings.
"These brutal terrorist attacks ... prove that they (insurgents) have no respect for any religion or faith. They are enemies of humanity," Ghani said in a statement.
Afghan has faced a series of large-scale attacks as the Taliban stepped up their war against the Kabul government after launching this year's summer offensive. Also, the emerging Islamic State group affiliate in Afghanistan has tried to increase its footprint in the country with attacks in cities and bigger urban areas.
The worst attack occurred in the Afghan capital of Kabul on May 31, shortly after Ramadan began, when a truck bomb exploded in the heart of the city, killing 150 people. It was the worst attack since the Taliban ouster in 2001.
Pakistan also condemned Thursday's suicide bombing, saying that "we firmly stand with our Afghan brothers in this hour of grief and anguish."
Afghanistan and Pakistan routinely accuse each other of harboring the other's insurgent enemy.
Helmand is considered a key region because it is one of the largest opium producing provinces for the Taliban, who charge opium traffickers a hefty tax to move their contraband to market. Corrupt government officials also benefit from the production and trade of opium, the raw material used to make heroin.
Afghanistan is the world's largest opium-producing country, producing more than all other opium-producing countries combined, according to United Nations estimate.
Meanwhile, a militant attack the previous night inside a mosque in the country's east killed two members of the local council.
Salim Sallhe, spokesman for the provincial governor in eastern Logar, said gunmen opened fire at worshippers during prayers at a mosque in Baraki district on Wednesday night. Two other local officials were wounded by the gunfire.
Sallhe said police are investigating. No group claimed the attack but Taliban spokesman, Zabihullah Mujahid, denied the insurgents were behind the shooting.
Shah reported from Kabul, Afghanistan. Associated Press writer Abdul Khalik in Lashkar Gah, Afghanistan, contributed to this report.