KABUL, Afghanistan -- A suicide bomber struck a wedding hall packed with VIPs from across northern Afghanistan on Saturday, killing at least 19 people, including a prominent anti-Taliban politician and a high-ranking police official. There was no immediate claim of responsibility for the blast, which also left dozens injured.
President Hamid Karzai denounced the attack in Aybak, the provincial capital of Samagan province, and ordered a full investigation. He blamed “enemies of the people” -- the usual phrase for the Taliban and other insurgent groups.
The main target of the powerful explosion was apparently the father of the bride, Ahmad Khan Samangani. A member of parliament and a major powerbroker in the north of Afghanistan, he was a close associate of warlord Abdul Rashid Dostum, a fellow ethnic Uzbek.
The attack, a sign of growing instability in the country’s relatively peaceful north, could signal either a power struggle among powerful northern warlords, most of them members of ethnic minorities, or a renewed campaign by the Taliban to assassinate leading figures in the Northern Alliance, the former militia that helped drive the group from power.
Witnesses said the bomber, clad in a police uniform, approached Samangani as he was greeting arriving guests, and blew himself up as the two embraced. Also killed in the blast was Mohammad Khan, the provincial intelligence director, and the regional police commander, Sayd Ahmad Sameh. The former governor of a neighboring province was among the wounded.
Early accounts said as many as 23 people died, but some hours after the attack, the Interior Ministry, which oversees the national police, put the toll at 17 dead and 43 injured. Still later, provincial officials said two more people had died of their wounds. The bombing took place at about 8 a.m., as hundreds of male guests had gathered for a wedding breakfast.
Samangani was part of a group of “mujaheddin” leaders who battled the Soviets in the the 1980s, splintered into rival armed groups during the country’s catastrophic civil war in the 1990s, then formed the Northern Alliance to fight the Taliban.
The Taliban denied involvement in Saturday’s attack, but the group has previously targeted senior Northern Alliance figures, many of whom oppose any political settlement with the Taliban to end the war. Those slain have included Daud Daud, a northern regional police commander who was killed in a bombing in 2011, and Gen. Khan Mohammad Mujahid, a former Northern Alliance commander who was serving as Kandahar police chief at the time of his assassination, also last year.
The blast left scenes of carnage and chaos in the wedding hall, witnesses said. “There were dead and wounded everywhere,” said Malem Sardar, a guest. “People jumped out the windows to get away.”
Violence has been ratcheting up in recent weeks, touching many parts of the country. The Samangan attack came a day after a leading women’s rights advocate, Hanifa Safi, was killed by a bomb affixed to her car in the eastern province of Laghman.
-- Laura King and Hashmat Baktash
Photo: A man who was injured in the wedding-hall suicide bombing is treated at a hospital in Aibak city, Samangan province. Credit: Jawed Kargar / EPA