By Obaid Ormur
PULE ALAM, Afghanistan, June 25 (Reuters) - A suicide car
bomber killed at least 20 people, and possibly as many as 35, in
an attack at a hospital in a remote district of eastern
Afghanistan on Saturday, government and security officials said.
Estimates of the casualties, which included patients and
medical staff, varied widely in chaotic scenes outside the
hospital in the remote Azra district of eastern Logar province,
which is just south of Kabul.
Dozens more were wounded in one of the worst attacks this
Deen Mohammad Darwish, a spokesman for the Logar provincial
government, said as many as 35 people were killed, although
Afghanistan's Interior Ministry put the death toll at 20.
"The exact target is still not clear," Interior minister
deputy spokesman Najib Nikzad said.
President Hamid Karzai condemned the attack in which he said
"tens of civilians" were killed.
Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid denied responsibility
and said the Islamist insurgents never attack hospitals.
Tensions have flared over civilian casualties, with
insurgents and the Afghan government alike criticising NATO-led
forces for killing innocent Afghans while hunting for militants.
United Nations figures however show that insurgents are
responsible for three-quarters of civilian deaths.
Military and civilian casualties hit record levels in 2010,
the most violent year of the war since U.S.-backed Afghan forces
toppled the Taliban in late 2001.
This year is following a similar trend, with violence
growing across Afghanistan since the Taliban announced a spring
offensive at the beginning of May.
U.S. commanders had already said they expected a rise in
attacks as insurgents hit back after U.S. and NATO forces made
gains during operations in the Taliban heartland in the south
over the past 18 months.
The United Nations said two weeks ago that May had been the
deadliest month for civilians since it began compiling
statistics four years ago.
It said it had documented 368 "conflict-related" civilian
deaths, 82 percent of them caused by insurgents.
The latest violence comes as seven areas across the country
prepare to take over security responsibilities from the NATO-led
International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) fighting an
increasingly unpopular war that has dragged on for 10 years.
That will coincide with the start in July of a gradual
drawdown of U.S. troops. U.S. and NATO troops plan to hand over
security responsibility for all of Afghanistan by the end of
2014, although critics warn the handover date is premature.
While most of the ISAF gains have been in Taliban
strongholds in the south, the insurgency in eastern provinces
like Logar and Kunar near the border with Pakistan is much more
Taliban fighters often slip across the border from safe
havens in Pakistan's largely lawless northwest but other groups
like the al Qaeda-linked Haqqani network also operate
extensively in the area.
(Additional reporting by Hamid Shalizi; Writing by Alistair
Scrutton; Editing by Sugita Katyal)
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