| KANDAHAR, Afghanistan
KANDAHAR, Afghanistan A suicide bomber killed at least 40 people, a quarter of them children, and wounded 77 others at a wedding party in insurgency-plagued southern Afghanistan, officials said Thursday.
"A suicide bomber went inside the party where hundreds of people were sitting and blew himself up," a police official said of the blast at around 9:30 p.m. (1700 GMT) Wednesday in Arghandab district, north of Kandahar, where foreign troops are focusing on a push in coming months to whittle out the Taliban.
A Kandahar policeman said many of the guests had links to local police or a militia that works with the Kabul government, which was why it was likely targeted. But the Taliban denied responsibility.
"We condemn such a brutal act," Taliban spokesman Qari Yousuf Ahmadi told Reuters from an undisclosed location. "The Taliban wage Jihad (holy war) in order to free the people from the hands of occupiers. How can we kill them?"
The Taliban have previously claimed responsibility for insurgent attacks but recanted once civilian casualties became clear.
Ahmadi laid blame at the feet of the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) for Afghanistan, which has killed hundreds of civilians in misdirected air strikes. Taliban attacks have claimed more civilian lives.
An ISAF spokeswoman said it was not involved in the blast and had helped local security forces in follow-up operations.
"This is an Afghan matter," the spokeswoman said.
Afghan President Hamid Karzai, whose plan to seek engagement with the Taliban won support at a tribal peace conference last week, deplored the wedding bombing as a "terrorist attack."
"This attack ... is the work of those cruel people who act against Islamic and divine values," Karzai's office said in a statement.
Witnesses described chaos at the wedding, which had drawn around 400 celebrants. In line with Afghan tradition, men had convened separately and were the bomber's target, but victims included children who had flocked in from nearby villages.
"Some people were waiting for food, others were dancing inside a big tent, when I heard a deafening blast," a wounded survivor named Aminullah said.
"The dust went up in the sky and I saw dead bodies everywhere. Women and children were screaming. I thought it was end of the world."
Citing hospital reports, Kandahar Governor Tooryalai Wisa said ball bearings had been used as shrapnel, a hallmark of suicide bombings.
At least 10 children were among the dead and 19 others were wounded, a doctor at Kandahar's central hospital said. Also killed were 10 members of a militia run by Sher Mohammad, said local tribal elder Haji Agha January Mohammad was wounded.
The Taliban have regrouped since their U.S.-led overthrow in 2001 and now engage a foreign force that is expected to grow to 150,000 in coming months as part of an offensive against insurgent strongholds in the south.
A favored tactic is improvised explosive devices (IEDs) or suicide attacks on foreign or Afghan forces, but pro-government sympathizers are also targeted and the insurgency used as a cover to settle old scores.
Rural wedding parties in Afghanistan can often be raucous affairs with large gatherings of people and frequently accompanied by celebratory gunfire. Several have mistakenly been attacked in the past by foreign forces.
(Additional reporting by Hamid Shalizi in Kabul; Writing by David Fox; Editing by Dan Williams)
(For more Reuters coverage of Afghanistan and Pakistan, see: here)