A suicide bomber killed 16 people, including Afghan school children and four Czech soldiers, in eastern Afghanistan on Tuesday as the country reeled from a worsening election crisis.
The bombing in Parwan province, north of Kabul, was a reminder of the volatile security situation in Afghanistan even as much of the country — and international allies — remained preoccupied by a bitterly disputed election that threatens to plunge the country back into chaos.
Supporters of presidential candidate Abdullah Abdullah, who has alleged widespread fraud in favor of his election rival Ashraf Ghani, gathered at a massive meeting hall in Kabul to protest preliminary results released Monday that gave a commanding lead to Ghani. Some of Abdullah's supporters have even threatened to form a "parallel government," causing alarm among Afghans and international donors.
Demonstrators at the meeting venue tore down a picture of President Hamid Karzai, whose allies Abdullah has accused of conspiring to rig the vote against him.
U.S. officials were scrambling to salvage the legitimacy of an election that the Obama administration hoped would usher in a stable, post-American era in Afghanistan. All but 10,000 of the remaining U.S. troops are due to depart the country at the end of the year, and until fraud allegations surfaced in recent weeks, the election had been hailed as largely peaceful.
Secretary of State John F. Kerry issued a statement late Monday expressing "grave concern" at the reports that a breakaway government could be formed. He urged Afghan election officials to investigate all fraud allegations thoroughly, but warned that any attempt to subvert the process could result in a cutoff of U.S. and foreign assistance to Afghanistan, which provides nearly all of the government's operating money.
"Any action to take power by extra-legal means will cost Afghanistan the financial and security support of the United States and the international community," Kerry said.
The preliminary results from the June 14 run-off vote gave Ghani a lead of about 1 million votes out of 8 million cast, a remarkable turnaround from April's first-round of balloting in which the former finance minister finished a distant second. Abdullah, an ex-foreign minister and longtime opposition figure, has released audio recordings purporting to show election officials working to rig votes in Ghani's favor. One top election official resigned last month over the allegations but denied wrongdoing.
United Nations diplomats appeared to have brokered a deal late Monday under which both campaigns agreed to have 7,000 out of 23,000 nationwide polling stations probed for fraud. But Ghani's supporters already have claimed victory, while Abdullah's camp has said it no longer trusts the election process and seemed unlikely to concede defeat.
Amid the uncertainty, violence blamed on the Taliban has intensified, raising fears that insurgents could exploit the political chaos.
The bombing in Parwan took place near a school where soldiers from the U.S.-led military coalition were handing out educational supplies to children, said Waheed Sediqqi, a spokesman for the provincial governor. At about 7:30 a.m., a suicide attacker riding a bicycle detonated explosives near a crowd of international soldiers and civilians in the village of Qalandar Khail, killing four Czech service members, two Afghan police officers and 10 civilians, including children, Sediqqi said.
The U.S.-led military coalition confirmed in a statement that four of its personnel were killed in an attack but gave no details.
Baktash is a special correspondent. Staff writer Bengali reported from Mumbai, India.