KANDAHAR, Afghanistan (AP) — Scores of Afghans were killed Wednesday in Taliban attacks and other violence including a NATO airstrike, highlighting persistent instability as foreign troops begin their drawdown more than a decade after the U.S.-led invasion.
The bloodbath spanned from the insurgents' stronghold in the south to the relatively peaceful north to the volatile eastern border with Pakistan. Two U.S. pilots also were killed when their helicopter crashed in Ghazni province in the east, a senior U.S. defense official said.
The deadliest assault took place in the southern city of Kandahar, the birthplace of the Taliban, where three suicide bombers turned a dusty marketplace into a gruesome scene of body parts, clothing, glass and other debris.
"I couldn't see anything except for fire and dust," said Islam Zada, who was on the other side of the road having tea near his parked truck when the first bomb went off.
"I found a wounded truck driver on our side of the road and went to help him," Zada said. "We gave him some water and when we were talking to him the other blasts happened."
The Taliban appeared to be targeting companies located at the Kandahar bomb site that provide supplies to a massive military base used by the U.S.-led coalition about three miles (five kilometers) away. Eight of the 22 killed worked for companies that supply equipment to the base. At least 50 others were wounded.
In the past two years, tens of thousands of U.S.-led coalition troops have flooded Taliban strongholds in the south, and have largely succeeded in boosting security there. But the Taliban have proven resilient, continuing to conduct suicide attacks to create fear among the public, opening up new fronts in the north and west and stepping up attacks in the east.
Afghan President Hamid Karzai condemned the attack in Kandahar, saying it proved the "enemy is getting weaker because they are killing innocent people."
The NATO coalition also denounced the killings and urged the Afghan people to support the government and the nation's developing security forces.
"The Taliban continue to kill innocent civilians," the coalition said in a statement. "These attacks are clear evidence of the insurgent's total lack of regard for the people and the legitimate government of Afghanistan and must stop."
The Taliban's reclusive leader, Mullah Mohammad Omar, said in a Muslim holiday message late last year that his fighters must protect Afghan civilians so the insurgency can maintain good relations with the population. But they continue.
Last year was the deadliest on record for civilians in the Afghan war, with 3,021 killed as insurgents ratcheted up violence with suicide attacks and roadside bombs, according to the United Nations.
The number of Afghan civilians killed dropped 36 percent in the first four months of this year compared with last year — a promising trend though the U.N. emphasizes that too many civilians are being caught up in violence as insurgents fight Afghan and foreign forces.
Anti-government forces, including the Taliban and other militants, were responsible for 79 percent of civilian casualties in the first four months of this year, according to the U.N. Afghan and foreign forces were responsible for 9 percent. It was unclear who was to blame for the remaining 12 percent.
In eastern Afghanistan, Afghan officials and residents said a pre-dawn NATO airstrike targeting militants killed civilians celebrating a wedding, including women and children, in Baraki Barak district of Logar province.
NATO said it did not have any reports that civilians were killed, but was aware of the allegations and had begun to formally assess what happened during the operation conducted by both Afghan and coalition forces.
NATO spokesman Maj. Martyn Crighton said troops were trying to capture a Taliban commander and called in an airstrike when they came under fire.
"During the follow-on assessment, the Afghan and coalition security force discovered two women with non-life-threatening injuries," Crighton said in an email. He said both women were taken to a military base for treatment.