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Afghan Bomb Kills 21 Wedding Guests: Govt

A roadside bomb killed 21 Afghan wedding guests, the latest in a wave of violent attacks ahead of key elections, as the NATO chief Thursday assessed efforts to quell the insurgency.

"A US Marine takes position during a patrol with Afghan National Police in the Garmsir district of Afghanistan's Helmand Province in July 2009. A roadside bomb killed 21 Afghans heading to a wedding, the latest in a wave of violent attacks ahead of key elections, as the NATO chief assessed efforts to quell the insurgency."

A U.S. soldier, five Afghan policemen and two truck drivers died in a series of other strikes, which have raised fears that violence will mar voting and damage the credibility of the August 20 polls in Afghanistan.

A bomb ripped through a trailer taking guests to a wedding and towed by a farm tractor -- a common mode of transport in rural Afghanistan -- on Wednesday in the southern province of Helmand, government officials said.

Most of the dead were "children and women and young boys", interior ministry spokesman Zemarai Bashary told AFP, adding that five more people were wounded.

Bashary blamed the attack on "terrorists".

Taliban spokesman Yousuf Ahmadi said his militia was not involved and instead blamed U.S. forces.

"They kill civilians and blame the Taliban to defame the Taliban," he said.

"Map of Afghanistan locating Helmand province. A roadside bomb killed 21 Afghans heading to a wedding, the latest in a wave of violent attacks ahead of key elections, as the NATO chief assessed efforts to quell the insurgency."

The militants, who are masterminding Afghanistan's increasingly deadly insurgency, rely heavily on roadside bomb blasts in their bloody campaign to bring down the Western-backed Afghan government and evict foreign troops.

Provincial police chief Assadullah Shairzad said the dead were travelling between villages.

"It was very difficult to differentiate between them and count how many were children and how many were women and men."

"The bodies were in bad condition and some were impossible to identify," he said.

Garmsir district is an insurgent stronghold where U.S. Marines have for months been trying to push out militants ahead of the landmark presidential and provincial council elections.

It was the deadliest attack in Afghanistan for a month after 25 people died in a truck bombing on July 9. Insurgent attacks are at record levels since the 2001 US-led invasion overthrew the extremist Taliban from government.

"Afghan President Hamid Karzai (right) speaks as the new Nato chief Anders Fogh Rasmussen listens during a joint press conference in Kabul on August 5. A roadside bomb killed 21 Afghans heading to a wedding, the latest in a wave of violent attacks ahead of key elections, as the NATO chief assessed efforts to quell the insurgency."

The Taliban have ordered a boycott of the poll, only the second time in history that Afghans will vote for a president, and vowed to block all roads to the polling stations.

The U.S. soldier was killed in another roadside bombing in western Afghanistan on Wednesday, NATO's International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) said.

A similar blast in Helmand on Thursday killed five Afghan police and wounded three, the interior ministry said.

In eastern Afghanistan, another traditional flashpoint, militants ambushed a convoy of tankers transporting fuel to international forces, killing two drivers and wounding a third, the ministry said.

This year has seen a record number of attacks in Afghanistan, alarming a population tired of decades of conflict and the host of international powers on which the fragile nation relies for security and aid.

The new NATO chief, Anders Fogh Rasmussen, on Thursday continued his maiden visit to Afghanistan, which he has declared a priority since taking office.

"On his first visit to Afghanistan, the new NATO chief vowed to strengthen military efforts to counter an insurgency in Afghanistan. But Anders Fogh Rasmussen conceded peace talks with certain groups were an option to end mounting violence. Images and soundbites of Rasmussen's visit."

Rasmussen, a former Danish prime minister, vowed to strengthen military efforts to defeat insurgents but conceded peace talks with certain groups many be an option to end mounting violence.

The secretary general was to hold further meetings, including with some of the 41 candidates registered to compete in the presidential election.

President Hamid Karzai, who is widely expected to win a second term in office, condemned the Helmand blasts. As Afghans prepare to vote, they would consider attacks on civilians "clear enmity," he said.

"The perpetrators will never be able to stop the Afghan nation's will for development and progress," he said.

Independent election monitor, The Free and Fair Election Foundation of Afghanistan, said security trends had worsened over the past three weeks and were "worrisome".

Conditions were "severely challenging" for the opening of polling stations in 14 districts, it said in a report, noting insurgent threats against voting.

"Measuring the success of any election rests on voter turnout, which is directly tied to the security environment surrounding electoral activities," the watchdog said.