KANDAHAR, Afghanistan – The governor of Kandahar province demanded more security around Afghanistan's largest southern city Sunday after a series of explosions killed dozens of people in the Taliban heartland — the target of the war's next major offensive by Afghan and international forces.
The blasts, which occurred one after another for 25 minutes across Kandahar city Saturday night, indicate that the insurgents remain a potent force in the area where NATO plans an assault later this year, the follow-up to an operation that has driven militants from a key stronghold in neighboring Helmand province.
Residents say Taliban militants can operate in Kandahar with little restraint.
"They can do what they intend and want, and the government can't control the situation," said Javed Ahmad, 40, of Kandahar. "We don't feel secure in the presence of all the forces in Afghanistan, and it's terrible for us to live in this kind of situation. We don't feel safe even at home, and we can't walk around."
Gov. Tooryalai Wesa said the blasts included two car bombs, six homicide attackers on motorbikes and bicycles, and homemade bombs. The attackers targeted the city's prison, police headquarters, a wedding hall next door and other areas on roads leading to the prison.
Wesa told reporters that he had asked the central government in Kabul for more Afghan troops to protect the city in the run-up to the expected offensive in Kandahar province, the spiritual birthplace of the Taliban. He also said he wants to coordinate with NATO forces to improve security.
The main target of the attacks was the prison, where investigators have found eight homicide vests, three rockets and AK-47 ammunition, police said.
Ministry of Interior spokesman Zemeri Bashary told reporters the attackers were trying to free prisoners and block security forces from responding, "but they failed in their mission."
"They were trying to open the jail, that is why they attacked cleverly in different parts of the city," said Kandahar provincial police chief Gen. Sardar Mohammad Zazi.
The assault mirrored a 2008 homicide bombing at the Kandahar prison gates that freed hundreds of prisoners, many of them suspected insurgents. No inmates escaped this time from the lockup, which Canadian troops reinforced with cement block after the 2008 attack.
Thirty-five people were killed in Saturday night's attacks, according to the ministry. Among the dead were 13 policemen and 22 civilians, including six women and three children. Most of the casualties occurred at the police headquarters and at the wedding celebration in a hall next door.
Another 57 people were wounded, including 17 policemen, and 42 homes were damaged, the ministry said.
"Last night was like doomsday for all of Kandahar's people," said Mohammad Anwar, a 30-year-old shopkeeper, whose relative lost a son in the attacks. He said residents blamed the United States and international forces for not battling the militants strongly enough.
"It is difficult for us to bear this kind of situation anymore," Anwar said. "We don't know the aim of these people," he said, referring to the insurgents. "Are they trying to kill civilians or eliminate the system? The government is too weak to control these kind of attacks."
Haji-Muhammad Aslam, 46, who also runs a store in the city, said residents of Kandahar feel helpless.
"What we can do?" he asked. "Almost nothing, except accept deaths and injuries. We are created to be killed by anyone, whether by militants, Americans or Afghan forces.
"Last night was a night beyond imagination. It took many innocent lives and most are suffering. But who is caring, and who will control it? Nobody. We are scared. We don't expect the current government to restore peace and stability," he said.
President Hamid Karzai's half brother, Ahmed Wali Karzai, a member of the Kandahar provincial council, told The Associated Press that two of the explosions occurred near his home. But he said he was not being targeted personally.
The offensive that U.S., NATO and Afghan forces are planning in Kandahar later this year is a follow-up to the ongoing military operation in Helmand province's Marjah district. The operation is the first test of top Afghanistan commander U.S. Gen. Stanley McChrystal's strategy to rout insurgents from areas, set up new governance and rush in development aid in hopes of winning the loyalty of the residents.
Kandahar city, population 800,000, was the seat of government for the Taliban when it ruled Afghanistan, imposing its vision of Islamic theocracy for five years before being toppled by U.S.-backed forces in 2001.
Armed Taliban bands still control villages around the city, and Taliban agents move through the city at night, delivering letters warning people against cooperating with the U.S.-backed government. International forces find homemade bombs almost daily as they patrol the city streets.
Another roadside bomb Sunday morning targeted a car carrying Pakistani construction workers south of the city in the district of Dand, according to the governor. Four of the Pakistani workers and their Afghan driver were wounded.
Training a workable Kandahar police force has become a priority for international forces trying to build trust in the Afghan government, which they hope will eventually be able to take over security. The 2,800 Canadian troops who oversee operations in Kandahar city and the surrounding province are due to leave Afghanistan next year.
The U.S. sent nearly 300 more military police to Kandahar in August to help build up the 2,000-strong local police force — a six-fold increase over the small Canadian and U.S. force that had been there training Afghan police, traditionally one of the country's least-trusted institutions.
Afghan National Police forces were the first to respond to Saturday's explosions and some Canadian troops later deployed to support them, Canadian military spokeswoman Capt. Cynthia LaRue said.
"The most important part here is to remember that ANP did a very good job and responded quickly," LaRue said Sunday.