Mazar-i-Sharif (Afghanistan) Nov 6: A suicide attack on a parliamentary delegation killed at least 50 people in northern Afghanistan today, a provincial official said, in the worst such blast in the country's history.
Five members of the Afghan parliament were among the dead and the toll was expected to rise. Schoolchildren were also among the victims in the town of Baghlan in the north of the country which had so far escaped the worst of Afghanistan's worsening violence.
''We have recorded 50 people dead so far, but there are still bodies on the streets we have not counted and some of the dead have already been taken away by their relatives,'' Baghlan provincial security chief Abdurrahman Sayedkhail told to the sources.
The shattered and scorched bodies of children and adults lay on the ground amid pools of blood and lumps of flesh as people scrambled to carry away the living and dead.
There was no immediate claim of responsibility.
A spokesman for the Islamist Taliban said the group was not behind the attack. The Taliban has killed more than 200 people this year in suicide bombings aimed at ousting the pro-Western government and driving out foreign troops.
The bomber was on foot and blew himself up as schoolchildren lined up to welcome the parliamentary delegation on a visit to a sugar factory in Baghlan. Large crowds had also turned out to greet the deputies, on an economic fact-finding mission.
''I saw bodies lying in the streets and some of the people were stealing the weapons of the dead soldiers. Children are screaming for help. It's like a nightmare,'' said local resident Mohammad Rahim. He said the blast had killed his two cousins, both schoolgirls.
Opposition spokesman and former Commerce Minister Mostafa Kazemi and four other parliamentary deputies were killed.
''The bomber got very close to the delegation as they were being greeted. He got very close to Mostafa Kazemi and blew himself up,'' Sayedkhail said. ''He was carrying a massive amount of explosives.'' A deputy agriculture minister and prominent woman parliamentarian Shukria Barakzai were among the wounded.
Relatively peaceful: The United States condemned the attack.
''The terrorist attack today in Afghanistan is a despicable act of cowardice and it reminds us who the enemy is -- extremists with evil in their hearts who target innocent Muslim men, women and children,'' White House spokeswoman Dana Perino said in a statement.
Northern Afghanistan has been relatively peaceful and prosperous compared to the south and east where Taliban suicide attacks are all too common and insurgents are locked in almost daily battles with Afghan and foreign forces.
One Taliban spokesman said the group had not carried out the Baghlan attack.
''It might have been carried out by their rivals in the parliament,'' said Taliban spokesman Zabiullah Mujahed. ''These parliamentarians were all mujahideen in the past and killed lots of civilians. Maybe someone was trying to take revenge.'' But the attack on Baghlan, a small market town in a melon-growing region with streets lined with citrus trees, had all the hallmarks of a Taliban operation.
NATO commanders say the Taliban are far from having a unified organisation and consist of a number of factions operating more or less independently under loose guidelines handed down from the governing council.
Al Qaeda operatives and at least one other rebel organisation are also active in Afghanistan.
The insurgents' strategy is aimed at convincing Afghans that their government and its Western backers are unable to bring security to the country which has already suffered nearly three decades of almost constant war.
The Afghan government often comes in for a good measure of blame from ordinary Afghans for failing to prevent the bloodshed. Frustration with official corruption, the lack of rule of law and the slow pace of development is also fuelling anger with the government.
NATO and US-led coalition troops are in a race against time to strengthen Afghan security forces before resentment grows against the presence of 50,000 foreign soldiers and mounting casualties lead Western public opinion to demand the troops be brought home.