KABUL, Afghanistan - A suicide bomber blew himself up among guests at a wedding hall Saturday in northern Afghanistan, killing 23 people including a prominent ex-Uzbek warlord turned lawmaker who was the father of the bride.
The attack was the latest to target top figures from the country's minority groups and dealt a blow to efforts to unify ethnic factions amid growing concerns that the country could descend into civil war after foreign combat troops withdraw in 2014.
Ahmad Khan Samangani, an ethnic Uzbek who commanded forces fighting the Soviets in the 1980s and later became a member of parliament, was welcoming guests to his daughter's wedding Saturday morning when the blast ripped through the building in Aybak, the capital of Samangan province.
Three Afghan security force officials also were among those killed. About 60 other people, including government officials, were wounded in the attack, which left the wedding hall's black-and-white tile floor covered with shattered glass, blood and other debris.
Chairs adorned with pink fabric lay strewn across the site. Dead bodies were piled into the back of Afghan security force vehicles. Afghan Army helicopters ferried some of the wounded from the wedding hall, which has a facade of pillars painted a festive light green and pink.
The bride and groom survived, but never got the chance to exchange vows.
An eyewitness described a gruesome scene after the explosion.
"I came out and saw 40 to 50 people everywhere on the ground — wounded and killed," said Salahuddin, who uses one name which is common in Afghanistan. "I could not exactly count the number of people killed. I could see people with missing legs and body parts all around me."
It was the latest in a string of deadly attacks around the country that threaten to undermine international hopes of an orderly handover to Afghan forces by the end of 2014. In one of the worst, Taliban fighters attacked a lakeside hotel north of Kabul on June 22, killing 18 people. Two days earlier, a suicide bomber killed 21 people, including three U.S. soldiers, in the eastern city of Khost.
There was no immediate claim of responsibility for Saturday's attack.
Taliban spokesman Zabiullah Mujahid told the Associated Press in a phone call that the Taliban neither confirmed nor denied responsibility for the attack. In announcing their spring offensive on May 2, the Taliban said they would continue to target those who back the Karzai government and the U.S.-led international military coalition.
Jan Kubis, the United Nation's top official in Afghanistan, said the U.N. had documented an increase in the number of government and elected officials who have been targeted by militants in the past six months. He did not provide statistics, but two government officials were assassinated on Friday — the Afghan Ministry of Women's Affairs director in Laghman province and the mayor of Shindand district in Herat province.
"Such inhumane brutality that is against the teachings of Islam and against international law should stop immediately," Kubis said in a statement.
Afghan President Hamid Karzai condemned the bombing, saying it was "carried out by the enemies of Afghanistan." He ordered a team from Kabul to fly to the area to investigate.
Karzai needs minority groups — loosely known as the Northern Alliance — to back his efforts to reconcile with the Taliban who are mostly from the majority Pashtun ethnic group. While Pashtuns make up 42 percent of the population, collectively the minority Tajiks, Hazaras, Uzbeks and other smaller groups outnumber them. Without minority support, the country risks a de facto partition into a Pashtun south and a "minority" north.
Minorities aren't against finding a political resolution to the decade-long war, but worry that Karzai, a Pashtun, will make too many concessions to the Taliban to achieve a peace deal.
Many commanders from the minority groups fought the Taliban after they seized Kabul in 1996 and joined with the U.S. to oust the hardline Islamic movement from power in the 2001 U.S.-led invasion. Whatever support for peace talks that Karzai has won from minority groups is likely to erode if militants continue to pick off their leaders one by one.
The death of Samangani was the latest of a handful of Northern Alliance and other minority leaders assassinated in the past two years.
One of the most prominent was Gen. Daud Daud, an ethnic Tajik, who oversaw police activities in nine northern provinces and was killed by a Taliban suicide bomber in May 2011. Daud had also served as governor of Takhar province in the north, deputy interior minister for counternarcotics and was a former bodyguard of Ahmad Shah Massoud, the charismatic Northern Alliance commander who was killed in an al-Qaida suicide bombing two days before the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.
Makhdum Muhibullah Furqani, a lawmaker from Samangan, said the attack was likely organized by the Taliban or by the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan. The IMU, which was formed in 1991, originally aimed to set up an Islamic state in Uzbekistan, which borders Afghanistan. It later expanded its goal to seeking an Islamic state across Central Asia.
"For sure, it's the act of the Taliban or IMU," he said. "This was a suicide bomber who killed all these people. It was not an ambush or an IED (improvised explosive device) attack which would say this is a private dispute."
Mohammad Nawab Sherzai, criminal investigations director in Aybak who was helping provide security for the wedding, said most of the local guests had already gathered on the upper floors of the three-story wedding hall when the bomber struck. Samangani and other relatives and elders had moved to the first floor to welcome additional guests arriving from Mazar-i-Sharif, the capital of neighboring Balkh province.
"Suddenly, the attacker, who was among the guests from Mazar-i-Sharif, got very close to Samangani. He detonated his suicide vest," Sherzai said. "It was a big explosion. There were bloody bodies all around the first floor. The explosion was so strong. There were people even on the third floor who were wounded."
"There was dark smoke all around. After about 10 minutes, the people were able to see the bodies and start helping with the wounded," he said.
Samangani became famous during Afghanistan's fight against the Soviets, who left the country in 1989 after a 10-year occupation. He became a member of parliament last year and was considered a key leader in Samangan and northern Afghanistan. He was a former military commander under Northern Alliance general Abdul Rashid Dostum, a powerful Uzbek warlord.
The three Afghan security force officials killed were Afghan National Police Gen. Sayed Ahmad Sameh, the commander for the western region and a relative of Samangani; Gen. Mohammad Khan, the intelligence chief in the province; and Mohammadullah, an Afghan National Army division commander who also uses only one name.
Also on Saturday, two NATO service members were killed in the east — one in an insurgent attack and the other as a result of a non-battle related injury. The U.S.-led coalition did not disclose any other details. So far this year, 235 NATO service members have died in Afghanistan.