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80 SLAIN IN SUICIDE BOMBING

The apparent target, an anti-Taliban leader, is among the victims.

An anti-Taliban militia leader was apparently the target of a suicide bombing Sunday in southern Afghanistan that killed him and about 80 other people and injured dozens, authorities said.

The bombing at a dogfighting match just outside Kandahar was thought to have been the deadliest single suicide attack since the Taliban movement was driven from power more than six years ago.

Authorities said the apparent target was militia leader Abdul Hakim Jan, who was killed in the explosion. Some people may have been killed when Jan's bodyguards opened fire after the blast although no assailants were in sight, witnesses said.

A tightly packed crowd of hundreds of men and boys had gathered in a dirt field on the city's edge to watch the dogfight when the bomber struck.

Dogfighting, though widely decried as barbaric, is popular in Afghanistan. It was banned under the Taliban but made a comeback after the movement was toppled by the U.S.-led invasion in 2001.

Witnesses said the attack occurred without warning. "Suddenly a big explosion went off," said Mohammed Qasim, 23.

Qasim said he saw corpses scattered everywhere and heard the wounded scream for help. Police vehicles parked nearby were incinerated.

Jan, a former provincial police chief, had defied the Taliban as the Islamist movement rose to prominence in the 1990s. More recently, he led a locally recruited force that worked in concert with Afghan police and soldiers.

His fighters operated in Arghandab, an area just north of Kandahar that was seized by the Taliban last year, then recaptured by Afghan and NATO troops.

Kandahar's governor, Asadullah Khalid, said 80 people had been killed. A spokesman for the Health Ministry said dozens of others were hurt, many of them seriously.

Hospitals were overwhelmed, and Afghan police and soldiers donated blood for the injured.

Khalid blamed the attack on "the enemies of Afghanistan," a phrase authorities use to describe the Taliban.

Purported spokesmen for the Taliban denied the bombing. Local officials suggested that the high civilian death count might have deterred the group from claiming responsibility.

Kandahar province, a onetime Taliban stronghold, has been the focus of fighting between insurgents and NATO troops for several years. It is one of the country's main producers of opium, with proceeds fueling the insurgency.

Suicide bombings in Afghanistan have been creeping up steadily and last year reached 140.

Until now, the deadliest single bombing was in November in the town of Baghlan, 110 miles north of the capital, Kabul. About 70 people died in that attack.

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