KABUL, Afghanistan – A suicide bomber blew up a car packed with explosives near a busy market and a mosque in eastern Afghanistan on Tuesday, killing 89 people and wounding more than 40 in one of the deadliest attacks since the 2001 U.S.-led invasion.
The attack in the town of Urgun in Paktika province brutally underscored the country’s instability as foreign troops prepare to leave by the end of the year and feuding politicians in Kabul work to form a new government after a disputed presidential election.
Gen. Mohammad Zahir Azimi, the Defense Ministry spokesman, said the bomber detonated his explosives-laden vehicle as he drove by the crowded market in the remote town in Urgun district, close to the border with Pakistan.
The military was providing helicopters and ambulances to transport the victims to the provincial capital, Sharan, and so far 42 wounded have been moved to hospitals there, he said, adding that the explosion destroyed more than 20 shops and dozens of vehicles.
No one immediately claimed responsibility for the attack, and the Taliban sent a statement to media denying involvement, saying they “strongly condemn attacks on local people.”
Many of the victims were buried under the rubble, said Mohammad Reza Kharoti, the administrative chief of Urgun district.
“It was a very brutal suicide attack against poor civilians,” he said. “There was no military base nearby.”
The bombing was also the first major attack since a weekend deal between the two Afghan presidential contenders brokered by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry averted a dangerous rift in the country’s troubled democracy following last month’s disputed runoff.
The two candidates, former Finance Minister Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai and former Foreign Minister Abdullah Abdullah, met Tuesday to discuss an agreed-upon audit of last month’s presidential runoff vote, Abdullah’s spokesman Fazel Sancharaki said.
The two plan to meet again on Thursday, he added.
Unofficial and disputed results showed Ghani-Ahmadzai well in the lead, but supporters of Abdullah say that’s only because of widespread fraud. Since fraud was alleged on both sides, the deal provides that every one of the 8 million ballots will be audited under national and international supervision over the next three or four weeks.
Neither the election nor the weekend deal have had any visible impact on the security situation in the country, which sees near-daily attacks.
Hours before the Paktika blast, a roadside bomb in eastern Kabul ripped through a minivan carrying seven employees of the media office of the presidential palace, killing two of the passengers.
The explosion struck as the vehicle was taking the palace staffers to work, said Gul Agha Hashimi, the chief of criminal investigations with the Kabul police.
Five other people, including the driver, were wounded, said Hashimi, speaking to reporters at the site of the blast. He added that one passenger was unharmed.
Kabul police spokesman Hashmat Stanikzai said it was a remotely detonated device planted along the median of a main road.
Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid claimed responsibility for that attack in a statement sent to reporters.
In a separate incident, seven police officers, including a district counter-terrorism director, and six border guards were killed when Taliban insurgents attacked a post on the border with Pakistan in the eastern Khost province, said Mubariz Mohammad Zadran, spokesman for the provincial governor.
Zadran said the attack set off an hours-long gunbattle that left 34 insurgents and a local man dead. “The majority of the insurgents killed in the clash are Pakistani citizens,” Zadran said.
Elsewhere in the country, two police officers were killed by a bomb concealed on a parked motorbike inside the southern city of Kandahar, said Zia Durani, spokesman for the Kandahar police chief.
Roadside bombings are a major threat to both Afghan security forces and civilians across the country. Such attacks have escalated as the Taliban intensify their campaign ahead of the U.S.-led foreign forces’ withdrawal by the end of the year.