Scores dead in one of Afghanistan's deadliest attacks

KANDAHAR, Afghanistan (AFP) — A suicide blast tore through a crowd watching a dog fight in Afghanistan Sunday, killing up to 80 men and boys in one of the deadliest attacks of a Taliban-led insurgency.

Officials blamed the Taliban for the explosion on the outskirts of the southern city of Kandahar but the Al-Qaeda-linked group did not immediately claim responsibility.

Bodies and bloodied limbs lay among boots, Afghan caps, turbans, shawls and mobile phones -- some of them ringing -- after the explosion that struck as two large fighting dogs were beginning a match, witnesses said.

The blast ripped up several police vans parked at the site, where spectators were crowded around a fighting arena while others sat nearby having a picnic.

One of about 500 people at the match told AFP from a military hospital where he was being treated for injuries to his arm that the blast had knocked him unconscious.

"It was all fun and two dogs had just begun fighting," Abdul Qudous said. "Suddenly a huge flame flashed and a huge bang was heard. I didn't know what happened next but when I opened my eyes, I found myself here."

Dog fighting is a popular winter pastime in Afghanistan. It was banned under the 1996-2001 Taliban regime along with other activities like kite-flying.

NATO's International Security Assistance Force condemned the attack and said it had volunteered to help investigate.

"We are following this situation very closely," said General Marc Lessard, Commander of Regional Command South. "The Afghan authorities and Afghan National Security Forces are leading the investigation of this incident and we stand ready to offer ISAF support to that investigation if required."

Authorities issued different death tolls for the attack: the interior ministry in Kabul first said more than 80 people were killed but later dropped its toll to 65 with more than 50 wounded.

"A number of wounded are in a bad condition and it is possible the number of casualties will rise," it said.

Ministry spokesman Zemarai Bashary told AFP most of the casualties were civilian men but they included several youngsters and a "number" of policemen. The bomber appeared to have been on foot, he said.

Kandahar governor Asadullah Khalid kept to his death toll of more than 80.

"This suicide attack was the work of the Taliban, the enemies of Afghanistan," he said.

Wali Karzai, the brother of President Hamid Karzai and head of the Kandahar provincial council, also blamed the insurgent group, which was behind most of about 140 suicide attacks last year.

"Who else would carry out suicide bombings? Obviously the Taliban are the ones carrying out suicide attacks," he said.

But a Taliban spokesman, Yousuf Ahmadi, would not confirm his group was involved.

President Karzai condemned the attack from Qatar, where he was on an official trip, accusing the "enemies of Afghanistan who cannot tolerate the happiness of our people."

"Such acts are against the values of Islam," he said in a statement.

There was also international condemnation of the blast, with the White House saying it showed extremists here "offer nothing but violence and death."

"The Afghan people will not allow them stop the march to democracy and security," said US national security spokesman Gordon Johndroe.

British Foreign Secretary David Miliband called the attack "a cowardly and abhorrent act of terrorism," while French President Nicolas Sarkozy said it reinforced the international community's determination "to remain at the side of Afghans to help them reconstruct a stable and reconciled country, free of terrorist and extremist threats."

The blast was one of the deadliest in Afghanistan since the fall of the extremist regime. A suicide bombing in northern Baghlan province in November last year killed 79 people -- most of them school pupils.

The Taliban did not admit responsibility for that blast but an official investigation concluded it was the work of the insurgents.

Just over a month ago the rebels stormed the most luxurious hotel in Afghanistan, killing eight people.

Restaurants and offices in the capital have since then stepped up security in anticipation of a bloody year. The past year was the deadliest of the insurgency, with more than 6,000 people killed -- most of them rebels.

The Taliban rose from Kandahar province in the early 1990s and took control of Kabul by 1996.

They were removed in a US-led invasion in late 2001, when they did not surrender their Al-Qaeda allies after the September 11 attacks that year, which killed about 3,000 people and for which Al-Qaeda claimed responsibility.