KABUL, Afghanistan — Taliban militants seized a civilian bus in volatile southern Afghanistan and executed at least two dozen passengers, beheading some of them, officials said Sunday.
The attack took place Thursday in Kandahar province, which was the home base of the militant Islamic movement before it was toppled by a U.S.-led invasion in late 2001. Many of those aboard were women and children.
In recent months, Taliban and fellow insurgent groups have been staging attacks on roads that connect major cities in an apparent effort to show that the government does not exert any significant control in the hinterlands.
Violence in Afghanistan this year has hit its highest levels since the conflict began. Many of those killed have been combatants, but civilian deaths so far in 2008 have been estimated by the United Nations at more than 1,300.
The district where the bus attack took place, Maywand, is strategically important. Western troops have been struggling to choke off infiltration routes that lead into it from Helmand province, the center of Afghanistan's drug trade. Many Taliban fighters based in Pakistan are believed to cross the border into Helmand and make their way from there via Maywand to the area surrounding Kandahar, the south's main city, which lies about 40 miles to the east.
Canadian forces, who make up the bulk of the NATO-led contingent deployed across Kandahar province, have been suffering steady losses in clashes with insurgents in Maywand and nearby districts. Despite the presence of Canadian and Afghan troops, Maywand is considered Taliban territory.
Reports about the bus assault were sketchy but chilling. Afghan authorities said the passengers were traveling in a two-bus convoy, a measure intended to bolster safety. Militants at a makeshift checkpoint fired on the first bus, which accelerated away from them. They were able to halt the second, with about 50 people on board.
Between 24 and 30 passengers were killed execution-style at the scene, according to police Chief Matiullah Khan of Kandahar.