ISLAMABAD - A massive suicide car bomb blast in Afghanistan’s southern Helmand province Thursday killed at least 34 people and wounded more than 60 others.
Witnesses said soldiers and government employees had gathered outside the New Kabul Bank in the provincial capital of Lashkargah to collect their salaries when the bomber struck them.
?A provincial government spokesman, Omar Zwak, told VOA some of the wounded “are in critical condition.” He added that civilian and military personnel were among the victims.
The deadly bombing came ahead of Sunday’s Eid festival, which marks the end of the holy Islamic fasting month of Ramadan.
The Taliban claimed responsibility, saying it killed more than 80 Afghan forces and intelligence operatives.
A spokesman for the Islamist insurgency, Mohammad Yousaf Ahmadi, said the bombing was carried out on a day when the bank entertains only security forces and civilians are not allowed to enter the facility.
Brig. General Roger Turner, commander of the U.S.-led Task Force Southwest, condemned the bombing. "This cowardly attack targeted innocent people as they lined up to get their salaries in preparation for the Eid al-Fitr celebrations," Turner said.
"Once again, the enemy has shown complete disregard for innocent civilians with an indiscriminate attack, causing death and suffering."
Helmand, a major opium poppy producing center, is the largest Afghan province where most of the territory is controlled or influenced by the Taliban.
Security Council briefing
The attack came a day after the United Nations Security Council in New York was briefed on Afghanistan's security and political situation.
The U.N. representative for Afghanistan, Tadamichi Yamamoto, said at Wednesday's meeting that the Taliban is gaining ground and stressed the urgency of “a genuine peace process” with the insurgents.
"The path of peace must be pursued through negotiations and not through violence," Yamamoto said.
He urged the Taliban to enter peace talks with Kabul without pre-conditions.
"The [Afghan] government, neighboring countries and other key players should reinforce the message that the Taliban can be a part of Afghanistan’s future and its political and social fabric,” said Yamamoto.
The deteriorating security situation in Afghanistan, he noted, has brought underlying political tensions in the government to the surface and "the broad political consensus was fraying."
Government under pressure
President Ashraf Ghani’s national unity government is under pressure from coalition partners and opposition politicians to step down in the wake of increasing violence.
“The political fault lines that emerged are increasingly along an ethnic basis, which is particularly worrying at a time when the Islamic State is attempting to provoke sectarian strife in the country through attacks against Shia Muslims,” noted Yamamoto.
The latest insurgent attack came on a day when the Afghan election commission announced that long-delayed parliamentary and district council elections will be held in the first week of July, 2018.
The Independent Election Commission chief, Najibullah Ahmadzai, called on the government to provide required finances for the democratic exercise.
A lack of reforms and controversial appointments to the election commission have been among major causes for the delay in the election process.