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20 dead as car bomb hits bank in southern Afghanistan

Twenty people were killed Thursday when a powerful car bomb struck a bank in Afghanistan’s Lashkar Gah city as government employees were queueing to withdraw salaries, the latest bloody attack during the holy month of Ramadan.

At least 50 wounded people were rushed to hospital after the bombing at New Kabul Bank which upturned vehicles, left the area littered with charred debris and sent a plume of smoke rising in the sky.

No group has claimed responsibility for the brazen attack, but it comes as the Taliban ramp up their nationwide spring offensive despite government calls for a ceasefire during Ramadan.

“The blast killed 20 people and left 50 others wounded, both civilians and military officials,” government spokesman Omar Zwak said, warning that the toll could rise.

The bomb tore through a queue of civilians and government employees who had lined up outside the bank to collect their salaries. The bank is believed to have been especially crowded ahead of the Eid holidays marking the end of Ramadan.

For years Helmand province, of which Lashkar Gah is the capital, was the centrepiece of the Western military intervention in Afghanistan, but it has recently slipped deeper into a quagmire of instability.

The insurgents control vast swathes of the province, blighted by a huge opium harvest that helps fund the insurgency, and have repeatedly threatened to seize Lashkar Gah.

The Taliban effectively control or contest 10 of the 14 districts in Helmand, the deadliest province for British and US troops over the past decade.

Intensified fighting last year forced thousands of people to flee to Lashkar Gah from neighbouring districts.

Since they launched their spring offensive in late April, the Taliban have been mounting lethal assaults on the Afghan army and police outposts in Helmand.

Washington is soon expected to announce an increase in the US military deployment to bolster Afghan forces as they struggle to contain the insurgency. American military commanders in Afghanistan have requested thousands of extra boots on the ground.

US troops in Afghanistan now number about 8,400, and there are another 5,000 from NATO allies, a far cry from the US presence of more than 100,000 six years ago. They mainly serve as trainers and advisers.

Pentagon chief Jim Mattis this month acknowledged that America still is “not winning” in Afghanistan nearly 16 years after the US-led invasion toppled the Taliban regime.

Mattis said he will present a new US military strategy for Afghanistan, along with adjusted troop numbers, in the coming weeks to President Donald Trump.

The Afghan conflict is the longest in American history, with US-led forces at war since the Taliban regime was ousted in 2001.

–AFP