KABUL, (Reuters) – Roadside bombs killed 20 civilians in southern Afghanistan and fighters killed 11 policemen and six private guards in attacks, officials said on Saturday as the country awaited results from last month’s disputed election.
Violence in Afghanistan has reached its worst levels of the eight-year-old war despite record levels of U.S. and NATO troops being sent to fight the Taliban.
The country remains mired in a drawn-out dispute over election fraud that could test the patience of U.S. President Barack Obama and other Western leaders contemplating whether more troops are needed to defend its government.
Election authorities were due to give near-complete preliminary results from the Aug. 20 presidential election later on Saturday, although a final outcome will still await the results of a fraud investigation that could take months.
Results so far show incumbent Hamid Karzai headed for a single round victory, which could be challenged by a U.N.-backed watchdog that says it has found proof of fraud and has begun voiding ballots from areas where Karzai won overwhelming support.
In the worst incident reported on Saturday, the Interior Ministry said a roadside bomb in Uruzgan province in the south had struck two passenger cars, killing 14 civilians.
Provincial police chief Juma Gul Hemat put the death toll at 12. He said: “The Taliban obviously planted the roadside bomb to target Afghan and foreign troops, but unfortunately it struck civilians.”
Another roadside bomb in Kandahar province killed six civilians, the Interior Ministry and provincial governor said.
In Kunduz province in the north, fighters attacked a police post, killing seven policemen including the commander at the checkpoint in a battle that ran from the middle of the night into morning, provincial governor Mohammad Omar said. He said two other policemen were missing and feared captured by the fighters.
Fighters killed four policemen in an attack on a patrol in Nangarhar province in the east of the country on Saturday, provincial government spokesman Ahmad Zia Abdulzai said.
Six guards from a local security firm were killed when fighters attacked their office in eastern Kunar province, provincial governor Fazlullah Wahidi said.
The Taliban insurgency, at its strongest since the militants were ousted by U.S.-backed Afghan forces after the Sept. 11 attacks on the United States in 2001, has spread from its traditional heartland into once-safe northern areas like Kunduz.
NATO-led forces said they had raided compounds in the province overnight, where they “killed a number of militants”. Omar said Western forces had killed at least 12 fighters there.
The province has been the scene of escalating fighting over recent months, including a NATO air strike called in by German forces that killed scores of Afghans, including civilians.
The NATO-led force now stands at a record strength of more than 100,000, including about 63,000 Americans, half of whom arrived this year as part of an escalation strategy pursued by President Barack Obama.
Obama is expected to decide in coming weeks whether to send still more troops, based on a classified assessment of the war by his new commander, General Stanley McChrystal.
Other Western leaders have shown clear signs of frustration with a war that is increasingly unpopular at home.
President Nicolas Sarkozy, Prime Minister Gordon Brown and Chancellor Angela Merkel of France, Britain and Germany have jointly proposed a conference this year to set timelines for Afghanistan to take on a bigger role in its own security.
Obama sought to rally Americans behind the war on Friday in a speech marking the eighth anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks, which led directly to the war when Afghanistan’s then Taliban rulers refused to turn over al Qaeda plotters behind the attacks.
“Let us renew our resolve against those who perpetrated this barbaric act and plot against us still,” Obama said at a sombre ceremony at the Pentagon.
Obama says the much larger military force he has sent to Afghanistan is necessary to prevent Osama bin Laden’s followers from re-establishing bases there. However, congressional leaders from his own Democratic Party have made clear they would be sceptical of any request for more troops.
Afghanistan’s disputed election could make it more difficult for Obama to seek more troops, by deepening differences between Karzai and the international community.
The day after the U.N.-backed Electoral Complaints Commission announced it had found fraud in the Afghan election, Karzai issued a statement praising it as honest and impartial.