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Afghan commander among 23 dead in blast

KABUL, Afghanistan--A suicide bomber blew himself up Saturday in a wedding hall in northern Afghanistan, killing at least 23 people including a prominent warlord-turned-politician and three Afghan security force officials, in an attack that deals a setback to efforts to unify the nation's ethnic factions, Afghan officials said.

Ahmad Khan Samangani, an ethnic Uzbek who is also a member of parliament, was welcoming guests to his daughter's wedding when the explosion occurred in Aybak, the capital of Samangan province.

No one has yet claimed responsibility for the blast. But in announcing their spring offensive on May 2, the Taliban said they would continue to target those who back the Karzai government and the U.S.-led international military coalition. There is also a long history of conflict between the Taliban — who come mostly from the country's biggest group, the Pashtuns — and members of ethnic minorities.

Afghan President Hamid Karzai needs the minority groups — loosely known as the Northern Alliance — to back his efforts to reconcile with the Taliban. But minorities already worry that Karzai, a Pashtun, will make too many concessions to their Taliban enemies to achieve a peace deal to end the war. Whatever support for peace talks that Karzai has won from minority groups is likely to erode if militants continue to pick off their leaders one by one.

Mohammad Nawab Sherzai, criminal investigations director in Aybak who was helping provide security for the wedding, said most of the local guests had already gathered on the second and third floors of the three-story wedding hall when the morning explosion occurred. Samangani and other relatives and elders had moved to the first floor to welcome additional guests arriving from Mazar-i-Sharif, the capital of neighboring Balkh province.

“Suddenly, the attacker, who was among the guests from Mazar-i-Sharif, got very close to Samangani. He detonated his suicide vest,” Sherzai said. “It was a big explosion. There were bloody bodies all around the first floor. The explosion was so strong. There were people even on the third floor who were wounded.”

“Everybody was running in different directions. For about 10 minutes, nobody knew what was happening,” he said. “There was dark smoke all around. After about 10 minutes, the people were able to see the bodies and start helping with the wounded.”

Ghulam Mohammad Khan, the criminal investigations director of the provincial police, said more than 20 people died in the morning blast. Khan said the provincial chief of intelligence and an Afghan National Army division commander also were among those killed. More than 40 others were wounded, including Gen. Sayed Ahmad Sameh, a western regional commander for the Afghan National Police, who was a relative of Samangani, Khan said.

Samangani became famous during Afghanistan's fight against the Soviets, who left the country in 1989 after a 10-year occupation. He became a member of parliament last year and was considered a key leader in Samangan and northern Afghanistan.

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Afghan men inspect a damaged wedding hall that was the site of a bombing in Samangan province, north of Kabul, Afghanistan, Saturday, July, 14.

(AP)

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