REPORTING FROM KABUL -- A suicide bomber struck a funeral gathering in northern Afghanistan on Sunday, killing at least 19 people, including a member of parliament, and heightening fears of an accelerating slide into violence in a part of the country that was once relatively peaceful.
The attack, which also left dozens of mourners injured, took place in the city of Taloquan, the capital of Takhar province, north of the capital, Kabul, where relatively few coalition troops are present and the insurgents are thought to be gaining strength.
The slain lawmaker was Abdul Matlab Baik, a well known anti-Taliban figure. A provincial spokesman, Faiz Mohammad Tawhidi, said officials believed he was deliberately targeted in the attack.
Baik had previously served as provincial police chief and as a deputy minister of tribal affairs in the government of President Hamid Karzai.
The last two years have seen a spike in assassinations of public officials and tribal elders across Afghanistan -- an insurgent tactic meant to intimidate those who ally themselves with the Karzai government.
Karzai, along with the U.S. embassy and NATO’s International Security Assistance Force, condemned the attack. Gen. John Allen, the American commander of Western troops in Afghanistan, called it “barbaric.”
The midafternoon bombing came as prayers were being read prior to the burial of an influential tribal leader. Nearly all of those killed and injured were believed to be civilians, who have taken the brunt of violence during the last 10 years of war.
Western forces are moving to hand over security responsibilities to the Afghan police and army in advance of the anticipated end of NATO’s combat role in 2014, and many of the areas designated for handover are in the country’s north, far from the insurgent strongholds of the south and east.
But as Western troops have concentrated their efforts in the east and south, the Taliban and other groups have established a firm foothold in a swath of northern provinces, including Takhar.
-- Laura King
Photo: Dead bodies covered following a Sunday suicide attack on a funeral in Taloqan, the capital of Takhar province that officials said took at least 19 lives. Credit : STRDEL / AFP/Getty Images