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 at least 89 people in the deadliest insurgent attack on civilians since the 2001 U.S.-led invasion.
The blast destroyed numerous mud-brick shops, flipped cars over and stripped trees of their branches, brutally underscoring the country’s instability as U.S. troops prepare to leave by the end of the year and politicians in Kabul struggle for power after a disputed presidential runoff.
Gen. Mohammad Zahir Azimi, the Defense Ministry spokesman, said the bomber detonated his explosives as he drove by the crowded market in a remote town in Urgun district, in the Paktika province bordering Pakistan. Azimi gave the death toll and said more than 40 other people were wounded.
Nearby hospitals were overwhelmed, and dozens of victims were transported over dangerous roads to the capital, Kabul.
Associated Press video of the aftermath showed mounds of twisted debris and the charred shells of cars flipped over on top of one another. Azimi said more than 20 shops and dozens of vehicles were destroyed.
Many victims were buried in the rubble, said Mohammad Reza Kharoti, administrative chief of Urgun district.
“It was a very brutal suicide attack against poor civilians,” he said. “There was no military base nearby.”
There was no immediate claim of responsibility, and the Taliban issued a statement denying involvement, saying they “strongly condemn attacks on local people.”
The U.N. mission in Afghanistan said initial reports “suggest that the attacker prematurely detonated after police detected the explosives in his vehicle.”
Several witnesses said the driver was in a four-wheel-drive vehicle and hit two vehicles parked on the edge of the market, leading police to open fire. Then the explosion happened.
It 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.
“People were shocked, and we are shocked, but this is the sad reality of Afghanistan,” one of the candidates, former Foreign Minister Abdullah Abdullah, told the Associated Press.
Unofficial results from the runoff showed former Finance Minister Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai well in the lead, but Abdullah’s supporters say that is 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 three or four weeks.