KANDAHAR, Afghanistan A suicide bomber penetrated a crowd watching a dog-fighting competition in the Taliban's former stronghold Sunday, killing up to 80 people in one of the bloodiest bombings since the regime's 2001 ouster.
The attack follows a year of record violence and predictions that the Afghan conflict could turn even deadlier this year.
Several hundred people, including Afghan militia leaders, had gathered in a barren dirt field to watch the event on the western edge of the southern city of Kandahar. Witnesses reported gunfire from bodyguards after the blast, but it was not immediately clear if the bullets killed or wounded anyone.
A prominent militia commander who stood up against the Taliban was killed in the attack, and officials said he may have been the target. The bombing crumpled several Afghan police trucks and turned the field a bloody red.
Death tolls fluctuated. Kandahar Gov. Asadullah Khalid said 80 people died, while the Health Ministry said 70 were killed and 70 wounded. The Interior Ministry first said 80 died and then revised the toll to 65.
The previous deadliest bombing in Afghanistan killed about 70 people mostly students in November, part of a record year of violence in 2007 that included more than 140 suicide attacks.
Khalid blamed the attack on "the enemy of Afghanistan" which typically means the Taliban.
However, a Taliban spokesman denied the militia was behind the attack. "That is not our work and I will not take responsibility for it," said Qari Yousef Ahmadi.
Kandahar the Taliban's former stronghold and Afghanistan's second-largest city has been the scene of fierce battles between NATO forces, primarily from Canada and the United States, and Taliban fighters the last two years.
The province, one of the country's largest opium poppy regions, could again be a flashpoint in the increasingly violent Afghan conflict this year. Canada, which has 2,500 troops in Kandahar, has threatened to end its combat role in Afghanistan unless NATO countries provide an additional 1,000 troops to help the anti-Taliban drive there.
The U.S., which already has some 28,000 forces in the country, is sending an additional 3,200 Marines in April, most of whom are expected to be stationed in Kandahar during their seven-month tour.
Unlike in the U.S., where star Atlanta Falcons quarterback Michael Vick was sentenced to 23 months in federal prison for his role in a dogfighting operation, dog fights are a popular form of entertainment in Afghanistan and the fights can attract hundreds of spectators who cram into a tight circle.
Afghans place discreet wagers on the dogs, the reason the Taliban banned the sport during its 1996-2001 rule.
Fighting dogs in Afghanistan German shepherds, bully kuttas and Afghan mastiffs have clipped ears and tails and carry the scars of battle. The dogs do not fight to the death but rather until one dog pins another or one runs away.
Afghans bloodied in Sunday's attack crammed into cars that drove the wounded to Kandahar's hospitals. Afghan soldiers donated blood after the attack to help with the overwhelming need, said Dr. Durani, who goes by only one name.
"There are too many patients here," he said. "Some of them are in very serious condition."
Italy's Foreign Ministry called the attack an "act of inexcusable violence," while British Foreign Secretary David Miliband, who visited Kandahar last week, called it a cowardly act of terrorism.
Wali Karzai, brother of President Hamid Karzai and the president of Kandahar's provincial council, said the target of the attack was Abdul Hakim Jan, the leader of a local militia who was killed in the attack.
Jan was the provincial police chief in Kandahar in the early 1990s and was the only commander in the province to stand up against the Taliban during its rule, said Khalid Pashtun, a parliamentarian who represents Kandahar.
"Hakim Jan is one of the important, prominent jihadi commanders in Kandahar," Pashtun said. "There were so many people gathered and of course the Taliban and al-Qaida usually target this kind of important people."
Jan was recently appointed the commander of an auxiliary police force Arghandab, a strategic area north of Kandahar. The area was overrun briefly by the Taliban late last year after the local leader, Mullah Naqibullah, died of heart attack.
A joint Afghan, NATO and U.S. force pushed the Taliban militants out of Arghandab. Shortly after, NATO's top commander in Afghanistan, U.S. Gen. Dan McNeill, visited Arghandab to reassure local leaders of the alliance's commitment to help President Hamid Karzai's government keep the area under their control.
Faizullah Qari Gar, a resident of Kandahar who was at the dog fight, said militant commanders' bodyguards opened fire on the crowd after the bombing.
"In my mind there were no Taliban to attack after the blast but the bodyguards were shooting anyway," he said.
About 70 people, including six parliamentarians and 58 students and teachers, were killed in the November attack in the northern city of Baghlan. Investigators never determined how many of the deaths were caused by the suicide bombing and how many by the subsequent gunfire from bodyguards.
Associated Press writers Jason Straziuso, Fisnik Abrashi, Rahim Faiez and Amir Shah in Kabul contributed to this report.