(KABUL, Afghanistan) — A suicide bomber riding a rickshaw blew himself up outside a checkpoint near a market in northern Afghanistan on Tuesday, killing at least 17 civilians, officials said, in the latest attack in the countdown to next month’s presidential elections.
Nobody immediately claimed responsibility for the attack in the capital of Faryab province, but it happened in an area where the Taliban and allied militant groups are active. The Taliban have threatened a campaign of violence to disrupt the April 5 vote, which will choose a new president to lead the country as foreign troops prepare to end their combat mission by the end of the year.
The attacker was approaching a checkpoint where cars were being searched on a road leading to the governor’s compound in Maymana, the Faryab provincial capital, when he detonated his explosives hidden in the rickshaw, the officials said.
However, most of the victims were vendors peddling fresh bread and other people at the busy roadside market area.
Provincial Gov. Mohammadullah Patash said 17 people were killed, including three children, and 26 were wounded in the explosion, which struck some 200 meters (yards) away from the governor’s compound.
Employees of the nearby electricity department also were among the casualties, according to the deputy governor, Abdul Satar Barez.
“They killed innocent people in a place where locals were just trying to earn 10 Afghanis (about 20 cents) to buy a piece of bread. Most of the casualties were either selling bread or buying it,” he said.
The U.N. Security Council condemned the attack “in the strongest terms,” reiterated its serious concern at the threats posed by the Taliban, Al-Qaida and illegal armed groups, “and underlined the need to bring perpetrators, organizers, financiers and sponsors of these reprehensible acts of terrorism to justice.”
President Hamid Karzai also strongly condemned Tuesday’s attack, saying it only served the purpose of foreigners, which he said was to kill Muslims and create instability in Afghanistan.
The Taliban have staged numerous attacks in Faryab, which lies far from their traditional strongholds in southern and eastern Afghanistan. In October 2012, a suicide bomber struck a mosque packed with senior regional officials in Maymana, killing 41 people.
Afghan civilians are frequently caught up in the violence as insurgents battle Afghan and international troops in an effort to undermine the Western-backed government. The United Nations said 2,959 civilians were killed and 5,656 wounded last year, a 14 percent increase from the previous year.
The Taliban deny that they target civilians, but the U.N. report blamed 74 percent of all civilian casualties last year on insurgents.
The winner of the April 5 vote will replace Karzai, who is barred by the constitution from seeking a third term.
On Tuesday, Karzai nominated Mohammad Yunus Qanooni, a well-known ethnic Tajik politician as his new first vice president. If approved by parliament, Qanooni will replace Mohammed Qasim Fahim, who died on March 9.