A suicide bomber posing as an army volunteer blew himself up outside a military recruiting center in northern Afghanistan on Monday, killing at least 35 people and escalating the insurgent campaign to scare young Afghans away from military service.
It was the second deadly attack on the center in three months but the crowd of young men lined up for service were among many Afghans eager for a rare steady paycheck despite the danger from militants targeting security forces, recruiting centers and government officials. Four children were among the dead and at least 42 people were wounded, said Muhbobullah Sayedi and Hamdullah Danishi, both provincial officials.
A 35 percent unemployment rate and an average military salary of $170 a month is still enough to persuade volunteers, when the average Afghan wage is about $60-$100 a month.
Monday's attack was also the second suicide bombing in five days in Kunduz, where al-Qaida, the Taliban and numerous other militant groups, including one from neighboring Uzbekistan, have increased their presence. Violence in recent months has shifted away from Afghanistan's south, where the U.S.-led coalition has poured thousands more troops.
Fatima Aziz, a parliamentarian for Kunduz, said the attacks are intended to expose the weakness of the Afghan forces and to dissuade potential army volunteers. U.S. Gen. David Petraeus _ the top commander of coalition forces in Afghanistan _ has said thousands more Afghan troops must be recruited and trained ahead of the eventual withdrawal of NATO troops.
The United States and Afghanistan began negotiations Monday over long-term security arrangements expected to guide international cooperation after 2014, when most coalition combat troops are scheduled to leave, said a spokesman for President Hamid Karzai.
The attacker walked up to the center before detonating his explosives vest, said Danishi. No group immediately claimed responsibility; the Taliban said it carried out the bombing against the center in December, which killed eight soldiers and policemen.
Karzai condemned the bombing and vowed retribution against those responsible.
Kunduz and surrounding provinces are known hide-outs for the Taliban, al-Qaida and fighters from militant factions that include the Haqqani network, Hizb-i-Islami and the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan. The province is also a major agricultural and transit center along a main highway used by NATO supply convoys.
In Kandahar province _ a longtime Taliban stronghold where NATO forces have been trying to regain control _ a well-known insurgent fighter agreed to lay down his weapons on Monday along with 20 other militants. Azizullah Agha said too many foreigners had joined the insurgency and he did not like that they were burning down schools. He spoke at a press conference at the Afghan intelligence agency in Kandahar city.
NATO officials have hoped for more defections, but so far they have been small and scattered.
In other violence, a roadside bombing killed three men driving in southern Zabul province, government spokesman Mohammad Rasoolyar said.
To the east, a bomb blast Monday morning killed three Afghan civilians in Nangarhar province's Sorkh Rod district, the Interior Ministry said. The ministry did not provide further details.
Mirwais Khan in Kandahar contributed to this report.