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18 die in Afghanistan bombing

Taliban targeting senior officials

LASHKAR GAH, Afghanistan -- A Taliban suicide bomber killed 18 people outside a provincial governor's compound yesterday, including several Muslim pilgrims set to travel to Mecca, in another attack directed at senior figures in President Hamid Karzai's US-backed government.

The blast at the doorstep of Helmand Governor Mohammed Daoud Safi's compound came on the same day a bombing against a NATO patrol in the Kabul area killed an Italian soldier and a child, and two weeks after militants assassinated a governor in eastern Afghanistan who had been a Karzai confidant.

Safi was inside the compound in Lashkar Gah but was not injured. Karzai was in Washington, meeting with President Bush.

Afghan soldiers stopped the bomber at the compound's security gate, where he detonated his explosives, said the governor's spokesman, Ghulam Muhiddin. The attacker had been walking toward a vehicle of the private military contractors who provide security for Safi, said Squadron Leader Jason Chalk, a NATO spokesman.

Nine Afghan soldiers and nine civilians were killed, said Rahmatullah Mohammdi, director of the hospital in Lashkar Gah. Seventeen people were wounded, he said.

Among the civilians waiting outside the compound were pilgrims seeking permission to travel to Mecca in Saudi Arabia, Muhiddin said. The main mosque in Lashkar Gah is across from the compound.

Qari Yousaf Ahmadi, who claims to be a spokesman for Taliban affairs in southern Afghanistan, contacted The Associated Press and said the militant group was responsible for the attack. Ahmadi's exact ties to the militants are not known.

Militants have stepped up attacks in southern Afghanistan in recent months, including the use of roadside and suicide bombs. Twenty-one people were killed in Lashkar Gah in August by a suicide bomber, and last week militants killed 19 construction workers riding on a bus in neighboring Kandahar province.

Although Muhiddin said he believed ``innocent civilians and Afghan soldiers" were the targets yesterday, the blast appeared to be another broadside fired toward a senior government figure.

Violent extremists have been increasingly targeting Afghan officials, including the governor of eastern Paktia province -- a friend of Karzai's -- who was killed in a Sept. 10 suicide bombing. A women's rights activist, who was the Kandahar provincial director for Afghanistan's Ministry of Women's Affairs, was killed Monday in a drive-by shooting.

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