An explosion tore through the home of a warlord in a remote Afghan valley Monday, flattening nearby houses and killing at least 26 people in one of the deadliest incidents since the fall of the Taliban (search).
Villagers said explosives for road-building caused the blast. But officials insisted the house hid an illegal weapons cache, highlighting the danger from old arms piled up in a quarter-century of war and the task of disarming commanders wary of rivals and the country's U.S.-backed government.
In either case, it was unclear what triggered the huge blast, which shook Bashgah (search), a farming hamlet in the mountains of Baghlan province, 75 miles north of Kabul (search), at about 6 a.m. Monday morning.
By late evening, a handful of residents were still combing the tangle of mud, stones and broken roof beams from at least four family homes. Pieces of clothing and crockery could be seen by lamplight, but no wall was left standing in an area 100 yards wide.
A shepherd called Mohammed Razek said he rushed from his home to pull victims from the debris and help more than 30 injured survivors.
"It was very powerful," Razek, a bearded 32-year-old in traditional baggy Afghan dress, told Associated Press reporters at the scene. "We saw the houses destroyed and then pieces of bodies everywhere."
He said 26 people were killed, including 23 relatives of the commander and more than a dozen children, and three others were missing. Bashgah was not in the village at the time.
Mohammed Yusuf Faiez, the director of Baghlan's only hospital said it was treating 11 injured, six men and five women. Two were in serious condition, he said, while an ambulance was sent to the scene.
Residents said the commander, a former anti-communist and anti-Taliban leader called Jalal Bashgah, recently brought explosives to improve the rough road up the valley. Razek insisted he surrendered all his arms to the government.
But Interior Ministry spokesman Latfullah Mashal said the blast was caused by a cache hidden in a bunker under Bashgah's house.
Baghlan Police chief Gen. Fazeluddin Ayar said the cache included rockets as well as explosives, and the commander had given up only a portion of weapons hoarded "a long time ago" to the United Nations, which has so far demobilized more than 50,000 former militiamen.
That program as well as the disposal activities of U.S. and NATO troops, who report the discovery of weapons caches almost daily, have rounded up a vast arsenal, much of it left over from the resistance against occupying Soviet forces during the 1980s.
But Peter Babbington, head of the U.N. program, said there were still "many, many thousands of tons" more scattered across the country. While the exact quantity was uncertain, there were sure to be more accidents, he said.
"These guys think they can store it forever and that it'll be as good as the day it came off the production line, but it isn't. It deteriorates and it becomes volatile," Babbington said. "We're surveying the known sites, but new sites come up every day."
Collection efforts were currently focused on the north, but in cities such as Mazar-e-Sharif and Herat rather than the remote valleys of Baghlan, he said.
Accidents with mines and old ordnance have inflicted casualties on an endless stream of Afghans, including children and farmers, who lose arms and legs while playing along roadsides or simply working their land, and poor Afghans killed trying to recycle gunpowder from rockets for quarrying.
Foreign troops worried that the weapons will be used against them by militants maintaining a three-year insurgency, have also fallen victim.
Before Monday, the most deadly reported arms accident had befallen the U.S. military, which lost eight of its soldiers in January 2004 when a cache of arms they were preparing for disposal exploded prematurely.