Bomb attack kills Muslim religious leader in Afghanistan, US soldier dies in south

KABUL, Afghanistan (AP) — A Muslim religious leader was killed by a bomb attack and a U.S. service member died in fighting Wednesday in turbulent southern Afghanistan, officials said.

Aid group Oxfam, meanwhile, said it was suspending operations in the northeastern province of Badakhshan following the deaths of two employees and a local volunteer in a roadside bomb attack.

Also Wednesday, Afghanistan's central bank tried to shore up confidence in Kabul Bank, the country's biggest financial institution, after its top executives resigned amid allegations of mismanagement and corruption.

The Muslim leader, Mohammad Hassan Taimuri, was killed in Kandahar city by a remote-detonated bomb hidden on a motorcycle that exploded in a downtown square, Kandahar police chief Sher Mohammed Zazai said. One other person was killed in the attack and two people were wounded, Zazai said.

There was no immediate claim of responsibility, and it was not clear why anyone would target Taimuri, who was responsible for managing Islamic religious institutions and arranging pilgrimages to the Islamic holy cities of Mecca and Medina. Muslims are obligated to make the pilgrimage, known as the hajj, at least once in a lifetime.

However, Taliban insurgents who are highly active in Kandahar routinely target government figures and institutions, often indiscriminately. The city is a longtime stronghold of the hard-line Islamist movement and the focus of the American-led operation against the insurgents.

NATO gave no other information about the U.S. serviceman's death, the first of the new month and the 20th in less than five days. The U.S. death toll for August stood at 56 — three-quarters of them in the second half of the month as the Taliban fought back against U.S. pressure.

Oxfam also gave no details about the three Afghans killed, but said it was reviewing security arrangements and had no plans to suspend its overall operations in Afghanistan, which range from running schools to distributing livestock.

Badakhshan's deputy governor, Shamsul Rahman, said the three were killed Saturday when their vehicle was struck by a roadside bomb suspected to have been set by Taliban insurgents.

Formerly relatively peaceful, Badakhshan has seen rising insurgent violence, and in early August, a group of suspected insurgents in the province murdered 10 aid workers — six Americans, two Afghans, one German and a Briton — who had spent two weeks giving vision and other medical care to impoverished villagers in neighboring Nuristan province. The Taliban claimed responsibility for the murders.

In Helmand in the south, a bomb exploded in a crowded market in the provincial capital of Lashkar Gah, wounding at least 15 people — some of whom had limbs torn from their bodies, according to deputy provincial police chief Kamaluddin Khan.

Hidden beneath a handcart, the bomb struck at about 6:45 p.m. (1415 GMT) as shoppers were thronging stalls in preparation for breaking the dawn-to-dusk fast observed during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, Khan said.

A similar early-evening market attack last Thursday in the northern province of Kunduz killed three policemen and two civilians. No one has claimed responsibility for the attacks, which seem contrived to spread terror and mayhem during one of the holiest periods of the Muslim calendar.

Also Wednesday, the Health Ministry said blood samples taken from Afghan schoolgirls who collapsed in apparent mass poisonings showed traces of chemicals found in herbicides, pesticides, and nerve gas. Taliban sympathizers opposed to women's education are suspected in the poisonings, none of which have been fatal, although it remains unclear how the gas was spread.

The attacks on civilians come during a particularly bloody period for the international coalition in Afghanistan.

NATO on Wednesday said coalition and Afghan forces were pursuing a Taliban commander in charge of some 40 fighters who was linked to a roadside bomb attack Tuesday in the eastern province of Logar that killed four U.S. soldiers.

Until the late-month spike, it appeared that the U.S. death toll for August would be well below the back-to-back monthly records of 66 in July and 60 in June.

The reason behind the sudden spike was unclear because few details about the casualties are released for security reasons.

NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen on Tuesday told reporters in Copenhagen, Denmark, that higher casualties were inevitable because more troops have arrived in Afghanistan in recent weeks, bringing the overall alliance force to more than 140,000 — including almost 100,000 Americans. The U.S. figure is more than triple the number of American service members in Afghanistan at the beginning of last year.

When complete, the surge in U.S. troops will be larger than the 30,000 initially approved because U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates has authorized an additional 1,300 specialized forces on top of that, U.S. defense officials say.

Under current projections, U.S. forces will top out at just under 100,000 later this fall, including 31,200 surge troops. The United States plans to begin withdrawing at least some forces next July.

In its monthly summary of Afghan operations, NATO said more than 500 insurgents had been detained in August and 160 killed, including 53 Taliban leaders and 23 commanders working with the allied Haqqani network. Leaders killed included shadow governors seeking to enforce the Taliban's harsh version of Islamic justice in areas where the insurgency holds sway, along with field battle commanders and their lieutenants.

At a hastily called news conference Wednesday, central bank Gov. Abdul Qadir Fitrat told reporters that Kabul Bank was solvent.

Fitrat said the top two executives of the bank had resigned as part of reforms being implemented by the central bank to improve professionalism at some of Afghanistan's 10 private banks.

The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal reported Wednesday that Kabul Bank's losses could exceed $300 million — and that the figure exceeds the bank's assets. The Washington Post said the extent of its bad loans, many to the families and friends of powerful politicians, remains unclear.

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Associated Press writers Anne Gearan in Ramadi, Iraq, and Mirwais Khan in Kandahar contributed to this report.