Taliban militants seized a bus in volatile southern Afghanistan and executed at least two dozen passengers, beheading some of them, officials said Sunday.
The attack took place in Kandahar province, which was the home base of the fundamentalist Islamic movement before it was toppled by a U.S.-led invasion in late 2001. The incident illustrated the extreme danger of travel in the Afghan countryside, even along main roads such as the one where the bus was commandeered. Many of the passengers were women and children.
In recent months, the Taliban and fellow insurgent groups have been staging attacks on roads that connect major cities in an apparent effort to show that the government does not exert any significant control in the hinterlands.
Violence in Afghanistan this year has hit its highest level since the conflict began. Many of those killed have been combatants, but civilian deaths in 2008 so far have been estimated by the United Nations at more than 1,300.
The district where the bus attack took place, Maywand, is strategically important. Western troops have been struggling to choke off infiltration routes that lead into it from Helmand province, the center of Afghanistan's drug trade. Many Taliban fighters based in Pakistan are believed to cross the border into Helmand and make their way from there via Maywand to the area surrounding Kandahar, the south's main city, which is about 40 miles to the east.
Canadian forces, who make up the bulk of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization-led contingent deployed across Kandahar province, have been suffering steady losses in near-daily clashes with insurgents in Maywand and nearby districts. Despite the presence of Canadian and Afghan troops, Maywand is considered Taliban territory. Reports about the bus assault, which took place Thursday, were sketchy but chilling. Many attacks that take place in distant rural areas do not come to light until days or even weeks later.
Afghan authorities said the passengers were traveling in a two-bus convoy, a measure intended to boost their safety. Militants who had set up a checkpoint fired on the first bus, which managed to race away. However, they were able to halt the second, which had about 50 people on board.
Between 24 and 30 passengers were killed execution-style at the scene, according to Kandahar Police Chief Matiullah Khan. One child who managed to get off the bus was killed in the gunfire that raked the vehicle.
Western news agencies quoted a Taliban spokesman as saying that 27 people were dragged from the bus and shot, and that they were Afghan soldiers. The army denied that, saying regulations prohibit soldiers from traveling in the area by civilian transport.
Some of the passengers were reported to have been freed, but a precise count was impossible to obtain. Civilians are usually too frightened to discuss attacks by insurgents in any detail, and those released dispersed quickly to their home districts.
An Afghan Defense Ministry spokesman, Gen. Mohammed Zahir Azimi, put the death toll at 31. He said six decapitated bodies were recovered elsewhere in the district, in addition to about 25 bodies found at the scene.
Elsewhere in the south, U.S.-led troops killed three militants in weekend clashes in Helmand, military and Afghan authorities said.