REPORTING FROM KABUL, AFGHANISTAN -- A suicide car bomber who took aim at a Western convoy in southern Afghanistan on Thursday killed four Afghan civilians and injured more than 30 other people, including three British nationals who were involved in reconstruction work, Afghan and British officials said.
The Taliban claimed responsibility for the attack in Lashkar Gah, the capital of Helmand province, where British forces six months ago handed over security responsibility in the city to the Afghan police and army. Such handovers have been taking place across Afghanistan over the past year in preparation for an end to the Western combat role in 2014.
The Britons injured by the powerful bomb blast were working out of a military-civilian development unit known as the provincial reconstruction team, said a spokesman for Britain's Foreign Office. British officials described their injuries as non-life-threatening.
A spokesman for NATO's International Security Assistance Force, U.S. Air Force Sgt. Thomas Dow, said there were no military fatalities in the blast.
Insurgent attacks against military and government targets often wind up killing and injuring Afghan civilians instead. One of those who died in Thursday's explosion was a child, said Helmand provincial spokesman Daoud Ahmadi.
The attack was condemned by Afghan officials as well as U.S. Marine Gen. John Allen, the commander of Western troops in Afghanistan. The U.S. Embassy called the bombing "vicious."
In claiming responsibility, Taliban spokesman Qari Yousaf Ahmadi described the target as a military convoy and said nine foreigners, including a woman, had died in the attack by a "martyrdom-seeking" Taliban fighter. The group routinely exaggerates casualties it is able to inflict on Westerners or Afghan troops.
However, the force of the explosion wrecked several vehicles, shattered windows and caused structural damage to nearby homes, shops and offices, including the governor's compound and the provincial education ministry, witnesses said.
Helmand, which together with neighboring Kandahar province is part of the Taliban movement's southern heartland, has been the scene of continuing violence despite a series of major Western offensives over the last two years.
President Hamid Karzai has repeatedly called for the phasing out of the NATO-overseen provincial reconstruction teams, describing them as "parallel structures" that undermine the authority of the Afghan government. Karzai says foreign aid and development money should be funneled solely through Afghan government ministries, but many international donors have balked at that, citing corruption concerns.
-- Laura King