By Laura King, Los Angeles Times –
KABUL, Afghanistan — A powerful roadside bomb incinerated a minivan in southern Afghanistan’s Helmand province Wednesday, killing eight civilians on a day when U.S. Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta was paying an unannounced visit.
The midday blast took place in Marja district, where a major anti-narcotics campaign is under way. The provincial governor, Ghulab Mangal, said insurgents were planting more and more improvised explosive devices in an effort to stymie the anti-poppy-cultivation drive.
Afghanistan’s drug trade is centered in Helmand, and narcotics trafficking is a significant source of revenue for the Taliban. Mangal, who met with Panetta, said he had asked the U.S. defense chief for help with counter-narcotics efforts and with securing the Afghan-Pakistani border.
Bombs planted by insurgents on Helmand roads are becoming more powerful. Officials said those killed in Wednesday’s explosion were so badly mangled that their bodies were unrecognizable. The blast came a week after six British troops were killed by a massive bomb in Helmand, the worst single loss of life for the British military contingent in nearly six years.
At almost the same time, another deadly attack occurred in neighboring Kandahar province, where a bomb planted on a motorbike was detonated as a convoy carrying Afghan intelligence officers passed. One of the officers of the National Directorate for Security was killed and three others were injured, said Mohammad Javed Faisal, a provincial spokesman. The explosion, on a busy street, also wounded a civilian passerby, he said.
A day earlier in Kandahar province, insurgents had attacked a government delegation visiting Panjwayi district outside Kandahar city, where 16 civilians, nine of them children, were killed in a shooting rampage that officials said was carried out by a U.S. Army sergeant who had walked away from his nearby base. The soldier is in military custody, and Panetta has said he could face the death penalty if found guilty by military courts.