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    Suicide Bombing Kills Senior Afghan Intelligence Official

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    A powerful suicide bomb in Afghanistan has killed the country's deputy chief of the national spy agency and 22 others. Taliban insurgents have claimed responsibility for the deadly attack. The violence comes as the United Nations has reported a significant decline in opium cultivation in the country. The illegal narcotics trade is said to be a major cause of instability in Afghanistan and is believed to be funding Taliban insurgency.

    The suicide bombing took place in the eastern Afghan province of Laghman. Authorities say that deputy chief of the country's powerful National Directorate for Security, Abdullah Laghmani, and other senior officials were leaving the main mosque in the provincial capital Mehtar Lam, when a suicide bomber hit them.

    Provincial Governor Lutfullah Mashal says most of the deaths occurred instantly and several top provincial officials were among those killed.

    The governor says that 18 civilians were also killed in the attack while 35 people were wounded who are being treated in hospitals in Laghman and in the city of Jalalabad.

    Taliban insurgents immediately claimed responsibility, saying the deputy chief of the spy agency was their target. President Hamid Karzai has condemned the deadly attack such a "vicious act" of terrorists.

    Taliban insurgents have launched frequent and deadly attacks on local as well foreign troops in Afghanistan this year. The violence has left hundreds of people dead. However, observers say Wednesday's assault on a top official of the country's spy agency underscored the Taliban's increasing ability to carry out targeted attacks.

    The violence comes as vote counting is still continuing after last month's presidential election in Afghanistan with partial results putting President Karzai in the lead amid widespread allegations of rigging by his main rival, former foreign minister Abdullah Abdullah.

    Meanwhile, the United Nations has announced a sharp decline this year in opium production in Afghanistan, which produces 90 percent of the world's crop.

    Speaking at a news conference in Kabul Wednesday, UN's Antonio Maria Costa, citied effective anti-drugs campaign, programs to replace opium poppies with legal crops and lower international prices for the reduction in opium cultivation.

    "Prices are very low and that has created a disincentive to farmers while production of licit crops, thanks to their much higher price of corn and wheat and cereals in general, have changed the trends of trade," he said. "Lower incentive for opium and higher incentive for licit crops all of this has caused a voluntary shift by farmers out of opium into licit crops."

    The biggest drop in the opium crop, he says, was witnessed in the southern Afghan province of Helmand, which accounts for nearly 60 percent of the country's total production of the drug. The region is a known Taliban stronghold, where U.S-led coalition forces have conducted major anti-insurgency operations this year.

    U.N.'s Antonio Costa acknowledged the Taliban insurgents particularly in southern provinces of Afghanistan are benefiting from the drugs income.

    "The very large amount still of opium produced by farmers and income derived by farmers generates a very significant amount of money to those who control the territory, and these are the Taliban in the south," he said.

    In its latest findings, the United Nations has now declared 20 of Afghanistan's provinces as poppy-free and has called on the international community to sustain the progress.

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