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Dozens killed by suicide bomber outside Afghanistan bank

Afghans carry an injured man after a suicide car bombing in Helmand province southern of Kabul, Afghanistan Picture: Abdul Khaliq/AP
By Mirwais Khan and Amir Shah, in Kandahar

A huge suicide car bombing outside a bank in Afghanistan's southern Helmand province has killed at least 29 people, officials said.

Most of the casualties were civilians, said Hayatullah Hayat, the provincial governor in Helmand.

The explosion near the Kabul Bank in the provincial capital of Lashkar Gah also wounded at least 60 people, he said.

No group immediately claimed responsibility for the attack but Helmand has been at the centre of bitter battles between the Taliban and Afghan security forces, aided by Nato troops.

The insurgents, believed to control nearly 80 per cent of the province's countryside, have increasingly been pushing on to Lashkar Gah and its environs in efforts to take the city.

In recent weeks, the Taliban have overrun Helmand's key Sangin district, where both British and US troops had fought for years to keep them at bay.

The attacker struck as scores of people, many of them Afghan soldiers or civil servants, were waiting near the bank to collect their salaries ahead of the Eid al-Fitr holiday, which follows the holy month of Ramadan, which ends this weekend.

Esmatullah, an Afghan border policeman who was at the scene of the explosion, said the noise from the blast was deafening.

He said many were missing in the ensuing chaos as witnesses, survivors and ambulances struggled to ferry first the most seriously wounded to hospital.

"We are taking children to the hospital," said Esmatullah, who like many Afghans uses only one name.

Twelve-year-old Hosnia was crying outside the bank as she searched for her father, who had brought her to buy shoes ahead of the Muslim holiday.

"I couldn't find anyone, my brother and my father," she said. "My father told me he will take me to buy shoes. We came here and then there was the explosion."

Helmand is considered a key region because it is one of the largest opium-producing provinces for the Taliban, who charge opium traffickers a hefty tax to move their contraband to market.

Corrupt government officials also benefit from the production and trade of opium, the raw material used to make heroin.

Afghanistan is the world's largest opium-producing country, producing more than all other opium-producing countries combined, according to a United Nations estimate.

Meanwhile, a militant attack the previous night inside a mosque in the country's east killed two members of the local council.

Salim Sallhe, spokesman for the provincial governor in eastern Logar, said gunmen opened fire at worshippers during prayers at a mosque in the Baraki district on Wednesday night.

Two other local officials were wounded by the gunfire.

Mr Sallhe said police are investigating.

No group claimed the attack but Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid denied the insurgents were behind the shooting.

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