A roadside bombing killed at least five people and wounded 32 others in the southern Afghan city of Kandahar on Thursday, while U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice made her first visit to the country, far north of the blast site, officials said.
Police blamed Taliban-led rebels for the attack that hit a passing taxi carrying women and children, a roadside restaurant and other bystanders in the downtown Ahazrat Jibaba area of the city, but a purported Taliban spokesman denied responsibility. Rice was in the capital, Kabul, about 450 kilometers (280 miles) to the north.
Dr. Azizullah Jan at Kandahar's Mirwais hospital which was struggling to cope with the tragedy, said four men and one child were killed, and 32 others wounded. Nineteen of the injured were sent in serious condition to the U.S. base at Kandahar for treatment.
The attack breaks a relative lull in violence in Afghanistan and could shake U.S. military confidence that the resistance of Taliban militants is fading.
The explosion came as Rice made her first visit to Afghanistan during a six-country tour of Asia and held talks with President Hamid Karzai on the war on terrorism and the booming Afghan narcotics trade. At a joint press conference afterward, Karzai insisted that security in the country was improving despite the latest attack.
The United States has about 17,000 forces hunting al-Qaida and Taliban rebels in southern and eastern Afghanistan. Kandahar was the main stronghold of the hardline Taliban regime before it was ousted in a U.S.-led offensive in late 2001.
American and Romanian forces cordoned off the area around the blast in a busy commercial district crowded with shops and restaurants. The shoes and turbans of the wounded were scattered on the bloodstained street, along with the wreckage of the taxi, a three-wheeled tuk-tuk and two motorbikes.
Police said the explosion went off as the taxi traveled down the street, taking four women and two children to a Muslim shrine. All six passengers were badly hurt.
Naimat Khan, who had been sitting inside a nearby restaurant, said he helped wounded people into passing vehicles to go to hospital.
"Many people sitting outside were seriously wounded," he told The Associated Press. "Some people were covered in blood. I saw one man with his hand cut off from his body."
Gen. Khan Mohammed, the provincial police chief, blamed rebels of the former ruling Taliban and the Hezb-e-Islami group of renegade warlord Gulbuddin Hekmatyar.
He gave no immediate evidence to back up his claim, but said police had information about one suspect and were trying to arrest him.
Mullah Hakim Latifi, who claims to speak for the Taliban, denied it was behind the attack and described the victims as "innocent people of Afghanistan."
In a phone call to AP from an undisclosed location, he claimed that people within the government angered by an effort to disarm warlords were responsible, and were pushing blame onto the Taliban.
Mohammed said that about two hours before the bombing, a land mine went off 10 kilometers (six miles) to the west of Kandahar, breaking the window of a passing vehicle of an international aid group. No one was hurt. He did not identify the aid group.
At the Mirwais hospital, relatives gathered for news of loved ones. One woman, whose son was killed in the attack when he'd gone out to buy bread for lunch, cried uncontrollably.
"My son didn't do anything," sobbed the woman, who was shrouded in all-covering burqa dress. "Why did these people kill my son? He's innocent."
It was not possible to establish her or her son's identity.
Kandahar has been hit by bombings before. In January 2004, a bomb attached to a bicycle killed at least 15 people, most of them children, and injured dozens more in the city. Authorities blamed Taliban militants for the attack.
In February, an American soldier was shot and wounded when he and his unit came under small-arms fire while investigating a roadside bomb in Kandahar, and in December, one suspected Taliban fighter was killed and two others were injured when a bomb they were handling exploded in a home in the city.