A team of suicide bombers shot their way into the compound of a road construction company in eastern Afghanistan and detonated a truck loaded with explosives, killing 23 people and wounding about 60, the Afghan government said Monday.
The Taliban claimed responsibility for the attack, which the Interior Ministry said occurred late Sunday in the Barmal district of Paktika province.
The ministry said three attackers went up to the gate of the Zahir construction company, shot the guard, and then drove a large truck that was full of explosives into the compound where they detonated it.
Taliban spokesman Zabiullah Mujahid said in an emailed statement Monday that the Taliban were responsible for the suicide attack that targeted a joint Afghan-NATO operating base.
Mokhlis Afghan, spokesman for provincial Governor Mohibullah Samim, said all the dead and wounded were laborers and there were no Afghan or foreign forces at the site. He added that the explosion was so powerful that little remained of the truck.
The area is located on the border with Pakistan's lawless tribal regions, which serve as safe havens for insurgents that infiltrate into Afghanistan across the rugged and mountainous frontier.
The region has seen an escalation in violence over the past few months. In northeastern Kunar province, Governor Sayed Fazeullah Wahidi said elders in Chapa Dara district were negotiating for the release of about 50 police officers and recruits abducted by the Taliban one day before. The men, who were unarmed, were in four trucks when they were stopped by a group of insurgents.
A NATO spokesman said the attack against the construction company was "horrific," and an indication insurgents have turned to civilian targets because it's getting more difficult to attack the Afghan army and U.S.-led coalition forces. He said civilians and public services, such as cellular telephone networks, were being increasingly targeted.
"They have turned to soft targets and turned to attacks against basic services," said the spokesman, Brig. Gen. Josef Blotz.
After recent attacks on cellular phone towers across southwest Afghanistan, private companies have been forced to turn off networks in some areas. Telecommunications Services Board of Afghanistan, a regulatory agency, said more than 800,000 cellular phone users in southwest Helmand province and another 100,000 in surrounding areas have been affected.
Insurgents have also blown up eight cellular phone towers in the provinces of Helmand, Wardak, Ghazni, and Farah, said agency spokesman and member Khair Mohammad Faizi.
Helmand's provincial council said services had been down for a week and demanded they be restored as 90 percent of Helmand's residents use cell phones.
Blotz said that "blowing up cell phone towers or restricting the use of cell phone towers is an example of a completely derailed intimidation campaign to deny a basic service."
Insurgent activity is expected to intensify in Helmand and other provinces as the spring fighting season gets under way. Many insurgents have been spending the winter in neighboring Pakistan or preparing for the spring poppy harvest, a major source of funding for the Taliban. Helmand is a major gateway for drugs, insurgents and guns. Helmand and neighboring Kandahar province have been the focus of a major NATO campaign which has had some success in holding and pushing back the insurgents.
Blotz said there was a recent operation against insurgents along Helmand's border with Pakistan to "curtail the flow of narcotics, weapons and fighters in and out of southern Afghanistan."
He said operations would intensify with the spring fighting season.
NATO and U.S. military officials expect a spike in bloodshed in the coming months as insurgents try to regain losses and an increase in suicide attacks and assassination attempts against Afghan officials.
Suicide attacks and improvised explosive devices killed at least 1,141 Afghan civilians in the conflict in 2010, according to the United Nations. A U.N. report in early said there were an average of 2.8 suicide attacks a week.
Amir Shah and Patrick Quinn contributed to this report from Kabul.