MEHTAR LAM, Afghanistan (Reuters) - Taliban suicide bombers on bicycles killed four people and wounded 31 in eastern Afghanistan on Saturday, the latest attacks to underscore the challenges NATO leaders face as they plan an exit from the war.
One bomber detonated his explosives at a police checkpoint in Mehtar Lam, the provincial capital of Laghman province, with the second striking several hundred metres away, Laghman Governor Mohammad Iqbal Azizi told Reuters.
The Taliban claimed responsibility for the attacks, which came after a spike in violence over the past week and on the second day of a NATO summit in Lisbon. Leaders at the summit endorsed plans to start handing responsibility for security to Afghans next year and transfer control of the entire country by the end of 2014.
“We are not sure what the target of the second bomber was but we think he may have detonated his explosives prematurely,” Azizi said. Earlier reports said the attacks had taken place in neighbouring Alisheng district.
All of the dead were civilians, Azizi said, and most of the victims had been riding in two motorised rickshaws, a common form of transport in rural areas that can carry many passengers.
Taj Mohammad, one of the rickshaw drivers, said he was on his way to the hospital when one of the bombs exploded.
“I had three female passengers and I was taking them to the hospital. When I was near to the hospital, I heard a huge bang. After that I did not know what happened, when I opened my eyes I was at the hospital,” Mohammad told Reuters.
Blood-stained sandals could be seen lying near the blast sites and the windows of nearby shops had been shattered by the explosions, a Reuters witness said.
Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid said the hardline Islamist group had carried out the attack and that the target had been Afghan police and intelligence officials.
Militants have waged several attacks recently, a reminder of the massive and growing military challenge posed by the Afghan insurgency as U.S. President Barack Obama and his administration gear up for a review of the war strategy in December.
Civilian and military casualties this year have been the highest since the 2001 overthrow of the Taliban, despite the presence of around 150,000 foreign troops, and violence has spread to previously peaceful northern provinces.
Last Saturday, Taliban fighters, including at least two suicide bombers, attacked a foreign military base in Jalalabad at the main airport in eastern Afghanistan, one of four incidents in 24 hours that marked a sudden upswing in violence.
On Monday, the NATO-led force said five of its troops had been killed over the weekend in a clash with insurgents in Kunar province, also in the east. It was the deadliest attack on foreign troops in six months.
At least 2,224 foreign troops have been killed since the start of the war, more than 650 of those in 2010, making it the deadliest year of the war so far.
Civilians have borne the brunt of the fighting as they become caught up in the crossfire. According to U.N. figures, 1,271 ordinary Afghans were killed in the first six months of this year, a 21 percent jump on the same period in 2009.
On Saturday, the NATO-led force said its troops had accidentally killed three civilians and wounded four more during an operation in Darah-ye-Pech district of northeastern Kunar province.
International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) troops fired several mortar rounds targeting militants on Friday after coming under fire from the insurgents, ISAF said. “Three or four” rounds missed their target and landed near a village, it said.
While insurgents are responsible for more than two-thirds of civilian deaths, those caused by foreign troops generate the most anger among the population and have led to a rift between Afghan President Hamid Karzai and his Western allies.
Additional reporting by Hamid Shalizi in KABUL; Writing by Jonathon Burch; Editing by Peter Graff