KANDAHAR, Afghanistan (Reuters) - Suicide attackers killed at least 19 people, 12 of them young children, when they targeted government buildings in southern Afghanistan Thursday, the latest blow to a fragile region that has been destabilized by a string of assassinations.
The assault in Uruzgan province also wounded 35 civilians, provincial officials said, and was the deadliest in the south in nearly six months.
It began with two remote-controlled car bombs, one in front of the provincial governor’s compound and the other near the offices for regional state television channel, Uruzgan TV, said the governor’s spokesman, Ahmad Milad Modaser.
Up to six suicide bombers then stormed the governor’s compound and the police chief’s compound in Tirin Kot, capital of Uruzgan, said Interior Ministry spokesman Sediq Sediqqi.
Three bombers detonated their explosives shortly after the attacks began while the remaining attackers were locked in a hours-long gunfight with police inside the compounds, he added.
The Taliban claimed responsibility for the attack and spokesman Qari Yousuf Ahmadi said six militants were involved.
Uruzgan is a largely rural and mountainous province north of Kandahar, to which it has many cultural and tribal links, and the Taliban have long had a presence there.
The complex assault comes the day after the killing of the mayor of Kandahar, and the same month as the assassinations of President Hamid Karzai’s younger half-brother, widely considered the most powerful man in the south, the most senior cleric in Kandahar province, and a former governor of Uruzgan.
Most of the dead were civilians, among them 12 children between the ages of 5 and 13 and two women, Modaser said. Three adult male civilians and two policemen were also killed.
The high toll of young children may have been from families trying to get national identity numbers for their children, which are required to enroll in government schools and only available at the provincial governor’s office.
The governor was in the compound during the attacks but was unhurt, Modaser said, adding the gun battles, which had lasted for some six hours, were now over.
A reporter who worked for Pajhwok, an Afghan news agency, and for the BBC was also killed in the attacks.
“Unfortunately one hour ago we got the news that our reporter in Uruzgan, Omid Khpalwak, 25, was killed. He was in Uruzgan TV station to arrange an interview,” said Danish Karokhil, chief editor for Pajhwok News Agency.
“He was trapped there for three hours and couldn’t escape from the battle.”
Karzai condemned the assault, but blamed it on outside interference.
“Enemies of Afghanistan who can do nothing but harm the innocent people of Afghanistan want to do these activities for their foreign masters,” he said in a statement.
It was the deadliest attack in southern Afghanistan, the Taliban’s heartland, since a February assault on the provincial police headquarters in the city of Kandahar, that killed 19.
The region has been the focus of intense NATO fighting in recent months, which has squeezed insurgents in their rural heartlands and brought some improvements in security.
But the more recent high-profile killings have had an equally chilling effect on both ordinary and elite Afghans as the larger-scale attacks, kindling fears of increase instability across an already volatile region.
On July 17, gunmen killed a former governor of Uruzgan and close adviser of Karzai in his home in the Afghan capital, Kabul. A lawmaker from the same province who was visiting Jan Mohammad Khan, was also killed in the attack.
That attack came only days after the killing of Ahmad Wali Karzai, a half-brother of the president and one of the most powerful and controversial men in southern Afghanistan.
Insurgents have stepped up an effective assassination campaign targeting Afghan government officials. More than half of all targeted killings in Afghanistan between April and June were also carried out in Kandahar, according to a U.N. report.
The assassinations have left a power vacuum in the south of the country that could weaken the president’s hold on a critical area that has long been a Taliban stronghold.
Violence in Afghanistan is at its worst since U.S.-backed Afghan forces toppled the Taliban government in late 2001, with high foreign troop deaths and record civilian casualties.
Additional reporting by Mirwais Harooni in Kabul; Writing by Jonathon Burch; Editing by Emma Graham-Harrison and Sugita Katyal