A suicide bomber killed 20 people - including three children - Thursday in a market in central Afghanistan in the deadliest attack against Afghan civilians in more than three months.
Suicide bombings and other attacks have become the No. 1 killer of Afghan civilians in the intensifying war between U.S.-led forces and the Taliban. A United Nations report released this week found that the number of Afghan civilians killed in war-related violence rose last year to its highest level of the 8-year-old war - with nearly 70 percent of the deaths blamed on the Taliban and their allies.
Attacks against purely civilian targets are less common in Afghanistan than in Iraq, where most of the violence is between rival Islamic religious communities. The U.N. report said most of the 2,412 Afghan civilians killed last year were caught up in fighting between militants and NATO troops.
Thursday's attacker detonated his explosives in front of a currency exchange shop located in an arcade of stores in the town of Dihrawud in Uruzgan province, a mostly ethnic Pashtun area about 250 miles (400 kilometers) southwest of the Afghan capital of Kabul. Thirteen people were wounded, according to a NATO statement.
District police chief Omar Khan said the attacker may have been headed for a regular security meeting of NATO and dozens of tribal elders. Khan, who was at the meeting, could not explain why the bomber detonated his explosives before reaching the heavily guarded venue.
Lt. Nico Melendez, a NATO spokesman in Kabul, said he had no indication that the meeting was the intended target.
Khan said 15 bodies were recovered at the blast site, but residents told police that remains of five more victims had been taken away for burial. Another police official, Gen. Juma Gul Himat, said three children were among the dead and that several shops were destroyed.
NATO troops from the nearby Forward Operating Base Hadrian responded to the blast and found a large amount of opium near the scene, the alliance said in a statement.
It was the deadliest attack against civilians since Sept. 29, when a bomb struck a crowded bus on the outskirts of the city of Kandahar, killing 30 passengers.
Civilian casualties have become a major issue in Afghanistan, with President Hamid Karzai sharply complaining about heavy-handed tactics by the U.S.-led force. That prompted the top U.S. and NATO commander, Gen. Stanley McChrystal, to issue orders last year limiting the use of airpower and other heavy weaponry when civilians were at risk.
NATO officials say McChrystal's orders were responsible for a drop in the percentage of civilian deaths that the U.N. attributes to international forces - down from 39 percent in 2008 to 25 percent last year.
Even the Taliban leader, Mullah Mohammed Omar, issued his own code of conduct last year, instructing fighters to ensure that civilians are not endangered by suicide attacks.
On Monday, McChrystal said he believes the U.S. troop surge in Afghanistan is.
Also Thursday, an American service member was killed in a roadside bombing in southern Afghanistan, NATO said in a statement without elaboration. The death was the fifth suffered by U.S. forces in the past two days.
A suicide bomber targeted a police patrol Thursday in the southern town of Musa Qala, killing an Afghan policeman and wounding four civilians, according to officials and NATO.
Four militants were killed late Wednesday when explosives they were carrying in their car went off prematurely in Kandahar province in southern Afghanistan, deputy provincial police chief Fazel Ahmad Sharzad said. He said the explosives were intended for attacks in Kandahar City, where NATO forces are bolstering their forces.
Insurgents also fired at a NATO helicopter in the Nad Ali district of Helmand province but the aircraft landed safely without casualties, the alliance said.