By Bashir Ansari
MAZAR-E-SHARIF, Afghanistan (Reuters) - A suicide bomber killed at least 40 people in a mosque in Afghanistan's relatively peaceful north on Friday as worshippers gathered for prayers marking the Muslim Eid al-Adha holiday, police officials said.
The attack in Maimana, capital of Faryab province, also wounded 40, regional police chief General Abdul Khaliq Aqsai said, pinning the blame on the Taliban. A Taliban spokesman said they were investigating to find out who was responsible.
"The suicide bomber detonated explosives when our countrymen were congratulating each other on the Eid holiday," said Lal Mohammad Ahmadzai, spokesman for the police in the Afghan north, adding that almost half of the dead were police.
He said Aqsai appeared to be the target. "As soon as the police chief got in his vehicle, the bomber detonated his explosives," Ahmadzai said
About 20 bodies, some in police uniform, lay in front of the mosque's gates as smoke billowed above.
The attack, at around 9 a.m. local time on the first day of Eid, came just before President Hamid Karzai repeated his call for the Taliban to join the government.
"If you (Taliban) want to come to the government, you are welcome. You have rights as an Afghan and as a Muslim," he said in a speech marking Eid in the capital, Kabul.
Kabul and Washington have been seeking separate peace negotiations with the Taliban as the 2014 deadline looms for most foreign troops to leave.
Karzai condemned the mosque attack in a statement.
Violence is intensifying across the country 11 years into the NATO-led war, sparking concerns over how the 350,000-strong Afghan security forces, often the target of the Taliban, will manage once most foreign troops leave.
The Taliban, in a statement released to media on Friday, said two Afghan soldiers were behind the attack in western Farah province on Thursday that killed one Italian soldier.
One of them later joined the Taliban, the statement said, along with the policeman who killed two U.S. soldiers in southern Uruzgan province on Thursday.
That attack was the latest insider attack, when Afghan security forces turn their weapons on their foreign mentors and partners. At least 54 members of the NATO-led force have been killed this year so far in insider attacks, which have been eroding trust between Kabul and its western backers.
(Additional reporting by Mirwais Harooni, writing by Amie Ferris-Rotman; Editing by Nick Macfie)