Nineteen people, including 15 police and an intelligence agent, died Saturday in a string of devastating attacks in the southern Afghan city of Kandahar claimed by the Taliban.
The attacks, which played out over several hours and left 49 people wounded, involved several suicide bombers armed with guns and grenades firing on the main police headquarters after occupying a wedding hall opposite.
Three car bombs were also detonated near the police office and a further three were defused before they could go off, local officials said.
The carnage came despite an influx of international troops into the province last year in an operation bidding to clear the traditional Taliban stronghold, seen as one of the key battlegrounds in the ten-year Afghanistan war.
It was swiftly condemned by Afghan President Hamid Karzai, who said the “enemies of Afghanistan” had “once again revealed their evil purposes against this country”.
The latest casualty toll was confirmed by the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF).
As well as the 15 police and one intelligence agent, it said two Afghan civilians and one member of the Afghan National Army had died. The injured were mainly police and civilians, including nine children.
There was currently “no indication” that any foreign troops had been killed or injured in the violence, an ISAF spokesman added said.
A local police commander, General Salem Ehsas, had earlier told reporters that the attackers “parked six explosive-laden vehicles near police HQ — they detonated three but security forces defused the explosives placed in the others”.
Amid conflicting claims over what happened, a spokesman for the Taliban, Yousuf Ahmadi, said the group was behind the attack.
“We sent six men to the building, they attacked police HQ and blew themselves up,” he said. “We also detonated six explosive-packed cars outside the police headquarters.”
As the violence raged, frightened locals hid inside their homes in a bid to escape injury or death.
An AFP reporter at the chaotic scene saw attackers firing rocket-propelled grenades, AK-47 assault rifles and machine guns from the sixth floor of the wedding hall at the police headquarters.
He later said that police had entered the building and there had been two loud explosions.
Kandahar, the biggest city in southern Afghanistan, is a Taliban heartland hit by frequent instability despite a large foreign troop presence due to a major operation against militants in the province in recent months.
Earlier this week, a US customs officer died in an attack on a customs office in Kandahar.
Last month, the deputy provincial governor Abdul Latif Ashna was killed on his way to work by a suicide bomber.
The deputy mayor of Kandahar, Noor Ahmad Nazari, was killed in October, six months after his predecessor was assassinated, and the local police chief has faced several recent attempts on his life.
Some experts argue that success in Kandahar is key to the wider fight against the Taliban because if the militants were defeated in the province, which borders Pakistan, they could not sustain themselves elsewhere.
There are around 140,000 foreign troops in Afghanistan fighting the Taliban, who were ousted from power by a US-led invasion in 2001 following the September 11 attacks.
Foreign soldiers are due to start a limited withdrawal from some more stable provinces of Afghanistan from July ahead of a planned transition of responsibility for security to Afghan forces in 2014.
The US commander of troops in Afghanistan, General David Petraeus, this week warned that further bloodshed was likely in the coming months as the Taliban launches an expected spring offensive.
Last year was the bloodiest yet for international troops serving in Afghanistan, with a total of 711 deaths.