A suicide bomber killed at least 15 people Tuesday in an attack on a busy marketplace in northern Afghanistan, officials said. The attack comes three weeks ahead of the country’s presidential election, which the Taliban has threatened to disrupt.
Nobody immediately claimed responsibility for the bombing in the capital of Faryab province, but it happened in an area where the Taliban and allied armed groups are active. The Taliban have threatened a campaign of violence to disrupt the April 5 vote, which will choose a new president to lead the country as foreign troops prepare to end their combat mission by the end of the year.
Eight people involved in political campaigning have already been killed since electioneering started last month. A group of election officials has also been kidnapped. However, it was not clear if Tuesday’s bombing was related to the election.
At least 47 people were also wounded when the suicide bomber driving a three-wheel rickshaw blew himself up in the provincial capital Maimana, the Health Ministry said in a statement.
"It was a bazaar day and everybody was busy buying or selling when the bomber detonated his explosives," said Mohammadullah Batash, governor of Faryab.
Two children were among the dead, the United Nations said.
Nicholas Haysom, the top U.N. official in Afghanistan, said such bombings could be a war crime.
"Their use in a distinctly civilian location such as a market is atrocious and cannot be justified," he said in a statement.
The U.N. said such bombs – called improvised explosive devices – have killed 190 civilians in Afghanistan so far this year, a 14 percent increase from the same period last year.
Also on Tuesday, Afghan President Hamid Karzai nominated a new vice president, a moderate politician from the same ethnic group as an opposition candidate contesting next month's presidential election.
Mohammad Younus Qanuni replaces Marshal Mohammad Fahim Qasim, who died following an illness last week. Both men are Tajiks, Afghanistan's second-largest ethnic group.
Many Tajiks fought fiercely against the Taliban in the run-up to the U.S. invasion in 2001. They are an important constituency in the upcoming presidential polls, which are set to mark the first time in Afghanistan's history that one elected government has handed power to another.
Karzai has not officially backed any of the nine candidates currently campaigning, but his two brothers have endorsed former Foreign Minister Zalmay Rassoul, cementing the official's reputation as a palace favorite.
The other two front-runners are Abdullah Abdullah, an eye surgeon and senior aide to a slain anti-Taliban Tajik militia leader, and Ashraf Ghani, a former World Bank official who has teamed up with another militia leader blamed for human rights abuses.
Some will see Qanuni's appointment as an attempt to keep Tajik votes on Rassoul's side. But others argue the president is simply maintaining an ethnic balance in the government and say Qanuni has publicly supported Abdullah in the past.
All the presidential candidates are Pashtun, Afghanistan's largest ethnic group, except for Abdullah, whose mother is Tajik and whose father is Pashtun.
Qanuni's appointment still has to be confirmed by legislators but it is unlikely to face serious opposition.
Regardless of who wins next month’s election, all nine candidates have promised to sign a security pact with the U.S. that would allow American soldiers to remain in Afghanistan from 2015 and beyond. The soldiers would bolster Afghanistan’s security forces, ensuring the government is able to defend itself against armed groups after international forces pull out later this year.
Karzai has refused to sign the agreement, saying that Afghan forces are capable of maintaining the country’s security on their own. He has also stated that he did not want a prolonged U.S. presence in Afghanistan to be part of his presidential legacy.
Frustrated with his Afghan counterpart, U.S. President Barack Obama, last month ordered the Pentagon to accelerate its plans for a full U.S. troop withdrawal from the country by the end of this year. However, he is still holding out hope for Karzai to sign the agreement before leaving office. A delay in doing so, could prove costly to U.S. forces who would have no legal basis for remaining in the country and have to quickly evacuate personnel and supplies.
The U.S. currently has about 33,600 troops in Afghanistan, down from a high of 100,000 in 2010. Obama has been weighing options from the Pentagon that would keep as many as 10,000 troops in the country after this year, contingent on the security agreement.
Al Jazeera and wire services