KUNDUZ, Afghanistan (Reuters) - A suicide attack on an army recruitment centre in northern Afghanistan killed at least 37 people on Monday, the third major assault in the area in less than a month, the deputy governor said.
Dozens were wounded, officials said, and a Reuters witness heard gunfire in the area after the attack. Hamdullah Danishi, deputy governor of Kunduz province, said the casualties were all caused by a single suicide bomber.
“The death toll includes new recruits, army soldiers and civilians,” Danishi told Reuters. Several children who earned a living as shoe polishers were also among the dead, he said.
Some of the wounded were in critical condition and the toll may rise, said provincial hospital director Humayoun Khamosh.
The hospital morgue held 33 bodies from the attack, at least three in army uniforms, while others were young people in civilian clothes who apparently had gone to enlist, Khamosh added.
A statement issued by Afghan President Hamid Karzai’s palace put the death toll at 33, with 42 wounded, and said four children were among the dead.
“Such attacks can never lower the morale of those Afghans who enlist in the security forces,” the statement said.
Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid claimed responsibility for the attack on behalf of the militant Islamist group.
Violence is spreading fast in the once relatively peaceful north, with Kunduz a focus for insurgents.
The Kunduz police chief was killed by a suicide bomber while out on patrol in the city last week. Last month, a suicide bomber killed at least 30 people in a government office while people were queuing to collect identity cards in the Emam Saheb district of Kunduz.
The previous governor of Kunduz was killed in an attack on a mosque where he was worshipping last October, and in December an assault by at least four suicide bombers on an army recruitment centre near the site of Monday’s attack killed five soldiers and four policemen.
The province has become established as an insurgent base over the past two years, with attacks radiating out into surrounding provinces while NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) offensives have been concentrated in Taliban strongholds in the south and east.
ISAF said on Monday they had heard reports of the latest attack in Kunduz and were investigating.
Last year, violence across Afghanistan hit its worst levels since the Taliban were ousted by U.S.-backed Afghan forces in late 2001, despite the presence of about 150,000 foreign troops.
There has been no lull in fighting this year and U.S. commanders have warned casualties are likely to spike further with the coming of spring, even as U.S. President Barack Obama firms up plans to start a troop drawdown that should eventually see Afghan forces in charge of security by 2014.
But some analysts fear that pulling out forces so soon after Western troops say they have begun to make significant headway against their opponents has thrown into question plans for an early withdrawal and jeopardises security across the country.
Kunduz was the last city to fall to U.S.-backed Northern Alliance forces in 2001 and the surge in violence there underscores the complexity of the Afghan conflict in areas where the Taliban are jostling with other international and domestic militant groups as they try to expand their influence.
Additional reporting by Hamid Shalizi in KABUL; Writing by Emma Graham-Harrison; Editing by Paul Tait and Ron Popeski