, KANDAHAR, Jun 10 – At least 39 people were killed by a huge explosion at a wedding in the southern Afghan province of Kandahar, where NATO troops are massing to dislodge the Taliban from their fiefdom.
The cause of Wednesday\’s devastating blast was unclear but the New York Times reported that the groom and some other guests were members of an anti-Taliban militia set up with the support of US Special Forces.
More than 70 people were wounded when the explosion ripped through the celebrations in Arghandab district, 20 kilometres (12 miles) north of Kandahar city, a senior official said.
Most of the victims were male as the explosion occurred in an area of the wedding festivities reserved for men.
The groom\’s brother, Mohammad Zanif, told AFP: "My brother was wounded. We don\’t know what happened. There was an enormous explosion and as a result everyone there was either killed or injured."
Local television appealed for people to donate blood to help treat the wounded.
"At least 39 bodies were transported to Kandahar central hospital," said Mohammad Anaas, a senior official with the city administration present at the hospital.
"We don\’t know how many bodies remain at the site and we don\’t know if it was a suicide attack or a bomb or something else," he told AFP.
Kandahar is the focus of a massive build-up by US-led military forces trying to drive the Taliban from their spiritual homeland and end their nearly nine-year insurgency.
US President Barack Obama has ordered an extra 30,000 troops to Afghanistan as part of his strategy to end the war, pushing the total nationwide NATO deployment to 150,000 by August.
Wednesday\’s explosion came during a particularly bloody week for foreign forces with 23 international soldiers killed, including four US servicemen who died when a NATO helicopter was shot down in neighbouring Helmand province.
US military chief Admiral Mike Mullen offered condolences after the wedding attack and warned that more bloodshed was expected.
Mullen did not assign blame for the blast but blamed the Taliban for stepping up violence as US-led forces prepare their long-awaited offensive on Kandahar.
"Sadly, there will be more casualties. Of that I am certain," Mullen told a dinner of the Asia Society in Washington.
"We will succeed in Afghanistan. We will prevent that country from ever becoming a safe haven again, but it will be a slow, messy and often deadly business," he said.
US Defense Secretary Robert Gates also warned of more bloodshed to come, saying the military expected a "high level of violence, particularly this summer" as coalition forces move into areas controlled by the Taliban.
Brigadier General Ben Hodges, head of US forces in the south, earlier told AFP that US Special Forces were helping villages organise their own protection against Taliban militants.
"There are some programmes where special forces units are out in a village stability programme where they might find a large village and then help train the locals to defend themselves," Hodges said.
"We don\’t have enough police and army and coalition forces to cover every single village," he added.
The Taliban have rejected the outcome of a "peace jirga" hosted by President Hamid Karzai last week with a view to coaxing militant fighters to lay down their weapons.
The jirga was marred by a rocket attack for which the Taliban claimed responsibility, prompting two of Karzai\’s top security officials to resign.
US troops have been in Afghanistan since the invasion to topple the Taliban regime which gave safe haven to Al-Qaeda and refused to surrender Osama bin Laden after the September 11, 2001 attacks.