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KABUL (Reuters) - Taliban militants killed 19 Afghans, including seven civilians, and wounded 41 more in a suicide bomb attack on a drug eradication team in eastern Afghanistan on Tuesday, the Interior Ministry said.
The Taliban have vowed to step up suicide attacks this year, to undermine the faith of Afghans in the ability of their government to provide security and to sap support in the West for the continued presence of international troops in the country.
The bomber targeted an opium poppy eradication team led by the district chief, tribal elders and police officers as they left the local government headquarters in Khogiani, a town south of the city of Jalalabad, close to the Pakistan border.
Gunmen opened fire with small arms and rocket-propelled grenades following the suicide attack, the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) said.
Twelve police officers and seven civilians were killed, the Interior Ministry said. Two Australian journalists were also among the wounded, the ABC broadcaster said on its Web site.
"This event proves that ... cultivation and production of narcotics in Afghanistan is inseparably related to terrorist forces," the Interior Ministry said in a statement.
Afghanistan last year produced 93 percent of the world's opium which is processed to make heroin and exported to the West.
Illegal drugs could be worth more than $3 billion a year to the Afghan economy, and United Nations drug experts say the Taliban impose a 10 percent tax on poppy farmers who produce opium and also on the drug traffickers to finance their insurgency.
Drug production is highest in the areas of Afghanistan where the Taliban are strongest, but the Afghan government has made progress in eliminating poppy crops in some areas, such as around Jalalabad, where it has tightened its grip on security.
The Taliban launched more than 140 suicide attacks across the country targeting foreign and Afghan government forces last year. Most of the victims, about 200, were civilians.
The conflict has steadily picked up in the south and east in recent weeks as Spring arrives and mountain snows melt.
A U.S. general warned last week there could be higher levels of violence in Afghanistan this year, with many attacks in the east originating across the border in lawless tribal areas of Pakistan where Afghan officials say militants enjoy a safe haven.
The latest blast in the east came as U.S. Marines began moving in to capture a town from Taliban militants in the south, their first large operation in Afghanistan since arriving to reinforce NATO troops last month.
The United States, frustrated by the failure of some European NATO allies to come up with troops to help out in fighting in southern Afghanistan, sent 3,200 Marines to bolster British, Canadian and Dutch forces engaged in daily battles there.
The U.S. Marines' drive into the town of Garmsir in Helmand, the world' biggest opium producing region and a hotbed of insurgent activity, is the first significant fruit of that move.
The Marines were largely uncontested as they began the operation by securing routes into the town, said U.S. Marines spokeswoman Captain Kelly Frushour.
"Late this morning and into the afternoon we've encountered some light resistance in the form of small arms fire and rocket-propelled grenades from buildings along the routes that we're securing, but nothing huge or organized," she said.
The town of Garmsir in the south of Helmand has been the scene of frequent raids by Afghan, British and U.S. troops, but has hitherto eluded capture.
One ISAF soldier was also killed and another one wounded during a patrol in the eastern province of Kapisa on Tuesday, ISAF said. Most foreign troops in Kapisa are American.
Additional reporting by Jonathon Burch; Editing by David Fogarty