LASHKAR GAH, Afghanistan – A suicide bomber struck outside the compound of a southern Afghan governor on Tuesday, killing 18 people, including several Muslim pilgrims seeking paperwork to travel to Mecca, officials said.
The attacker detonated his suicide vest when Afghan soldiers stopped him at the compound's security gate, said Ghulam Muhiddin, spokesman for the Helmand provincial governor.
The bomber had been walking toward a vehicle of the private military contractors who provide security for the governor, said Squadron Leader Jason Chalk, a NATO spokesman.
Nine Afghan soldiers and nine civilians were killed, said Rahmatullah Mohammdi, director of the hospital in Lashkar Gah. Seventeen people were wounded, he said.
The governor, Mohammed Daoud Safi, was inside the compound and was not injured in the attack.
Among the civilians waiting outside the compound were Afghan pilgrims seeking permission to travel to Mecca in Saudi Arabia, Muhiddin said. The main mosque in Lashkar Gah sits across from the compound.
Qari Yousaf Ahmadi, who claims to be a spokesman for Taliban affairs in southern Afghanistan, contacted The Associated Press and said the militant group was responsible for the attack. Ahmadi's exact ties to the militants are not known.
Militants have stepped up attacks in southern Afghanistan in recent months, including the use of roadside and suicide bombs. Twenty-one people died in Lashkar Gah in late August when a suicide bomber tried to kill an ex-police chief, and last week militants killed 19 construction workers riding on a bus in neighboring Kandahar province.
Meanwhile, a bomb attack Tuesday against a NATO patrol south of the Afghan capital killed an Italian soldier and a child, officials said.
A remote-control bomb planted under a bridge detonated when a three-vehicle military convoy passed by, said Ali Shah Paktiawal, Kabul police criminal director.
Chief Corp. Maj. Giorgio Langella was killed in the blast, and five Italian soldiers were wounded, the Italian Defense Ministry said in Rome.
A child riding in a car behind the NATO convoy was killed, NATO said. Four other civilians in the car were wounded.
Two people were detained for questioning in the blast, which went off about five miles south of Kabul, police said.
The bloodied body of the slain soldier, with his bullet-proof vest still on, lay on the ground alongside his weapon shortly after the blast, according to an Associated Press reporter at the scene.
Six Italian troops carried the victim's body to a military helicopter that landed near the blast site. Other helicopters hovered overhead as police and Italian troops cordoned off the area.
Italy has some 1,600 troops in the 20,000-strong NATO-led force in Afghanistan.
Taliban-linked militants have stepped up their attacks across Afghanistan the last several months, though attacks in Kabul are still much rarer than in the country's south.
Attacks in the capital are mostly aimed at foreign military troops. On Sept. 8, a suicide car bomber rammed into a U.S. Humvee, killing 16 people, including two U.S. soldiers. The attack was Kabul's deadliest since the 2001 toppling of the Taliban.
In eastern Paktika province, seven armed men died when an explosives vest one of them was carrying detonated in the Yousef Kheil district on Monday, said Gov. Mohammad Akram Akhpelwak. There were no other casualties.
A suicide bomber on foot killed himself Tuesday while trying to attack a vehicle carrying security workers traveling to the border in Khost province, in eastern Afghanistan, said Gen. Mohammad Ayub, the provincial police chief. No one else was injured in the blast.