A senior Afghan opposition politician was among scores of people killed Tuesday by a suicide bomb attack in a previously peaceful northern province of Afghanistan.
Reports of the number of people killed or injured varied from as low as 13 to as many as 100. But because many of the victims were young children, observers say, the attack was one of the most devastating to hit Afghanistan since the fall of the Taliban in 2001.
Hamidullah Tarzi, a former finance minister, said Tuesday's attack was a clear attempt by the Taliban to show that they can operate with impunity outside Afghanistan's ethnic Pashtun belt – the extreme Sunni movement's southern heartland.
Baghlan Province had largely been spared much of the insurgent activity that has engulfed the country's southern provinces and has recently shown signs of spreading into the western regions.
"They are trying to make the government look weak and to prove that the international troops in Afghanistan are not capable of stopping this sort of operation," said Mr. Tarzi.
Sayed Mustafa Kazimi, a former Afghan commerce minister and spokesman for the United National Front, the country's largest opposition group, was the most senior of the five members of parliament who died during the attack on a sugar mill in Baghlan Province.
A deputy agriculture minister as well as prominent female parliamentarian Shukria Barakzai were among the wounded. Abdurrahman Sayedkhail, the provincial security chief, said the bomber was "carrying a massive amount of explosives" and got very close to the delegation of parliamentarians as they were being greeted by schoolchildren and local officials.
Questions surround the perpetrators
Despite the high level of certainty among government officials that the Taliban were behind the bombing, a spokesman for the Taliban denied that the jihadi group was responsible. The Taliban have targeted regional governors and members of parliament in the past, but never have so many senior officials been attacked in a single assault.
"It might have been carried out by their rivals in the parliament," said Taliban spokesman Zabiullah Mujahed. "These parliamentarians were all mujahideen in the past, and killed lots of civilians. Maybe someone was trying to take revenge."
The United National Front is dominated by former members of the Northern Alliance, the coalition of fighters drawn from the north of the country who worked in the 1990s to prevent the Taliban from taking over all of Afghanistan.
Some analysts, including Wadir Safi, a law professor at Kabul University, agreed that the attack was a political assassination.
But Western observers in Kabul cast doubt on that idea, saying that the Taliban have previously distanced themselves from attacks involving large numbers of innocent people.
Al Qaeda operatives are also active in Afghanistan, as are remnants of the militant group Hezb-i Islami, whose fugitive leader, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, an ethnic Pashtun, is allied with Osama bin Laden and Al Qaeda, but has denied organizational links.
A spokesman for the US military said the blast was similar to those often carried out by the Taliban.
Attack may shake confidence in government
Whether or not the Taliban do eventually take responsibility, Tuesday's bombing may feed popular fears that the Afghan government and the international military forces that support it are unable to control the insurgents, observers say.
More than 200 people have died in more than 130 suicide attacks this year amid signs that public confidence in the future of the country is starting to slip.
The International Security and Assistance Force, the NATO-led military coalition, says the Taliban have come to rely on terror tactics because they are too weak to hold territory, although the insurgents continue to target poorly defended provincial districts.
On Monday, it was reported that insurgents had captured the Karjan district in central Daikundi Province, a day after they claimed to have overrun two districts in the west of the country.
The direct attack on members of parliament may also alarm Western countries who see Afghanistan's young democratic institutions as a fragile sign of progress since the overthrow of the Taliban six years ago.