A huge bomb ripped through a commercial district of downtown Kandahar Tuesday, killing at least 36 people and wounding more than 64 in a grim reminder of Afghanistan's deteriorating security as the country awaits the outcome of its second presidential election.
The attack took place about 7 p.m., as many people were travelling home to break their daily fast during the holy month of Ramadan.
The explosion, apparently caused by a truck bomb, took place on a central street lined with houses, small shops and aid agencies not far from Kandahar's provincial intelligence headquarters.
The offices of a Japanese construction company that recently built a road as part of a reconstruction project bore the brunt of the blast. A wedding hall on the opposite side of the street that occasionally hosts political rallies was also severely damaged, though it was unclear if either building was the intended target.
Some Afghan officials suggested the attack was aimed at foreign companies and aid agencies. However, all of the dead and wounded were Afghan civilians.
"It was either a tanker or a truck bomb and the target was a Japanese construction company," said Wali Karzai, head of Kandahar's provincial council and the half-brother of the Afghan President.
It was the deadliest explosion in Afghanistan since a suicide car bomber killed more than 60 people, including two senior diplomats, in an attack on the Indian embassy in Kabul in July, 2008.
Last night, emergency workers with flashlights and shovels struggled to free people still trapped under the rubble.
Fires smouldered in the wreckage and the road was stained with blood and scattered with body parts.
The force of the blast shook the entire city, flattening houses a kilometre away and shattering windows everywhere. Several women and children were among the dead.
"When I arrived at the hospital, the corridors were filled with bodies. There are many wounded people in very bad condition, with foreign objects in their heads and chests. I think the death toll will rise," said Daoud Farhad, director of Kandahar's Mirwais hospital.
Kandahar has long been at the centre of a growing Taliban insurgency that NATO and Afghan forces have struggled to contain.
Taliban insurgents had vowed to disrupt last week's presidential elections with violence. On voting day, at least 20 rockets struck the city, forcing some polling stations to close. Four people were killed, including two who were hanged in a public execution because they had ink on their right index fingers, denoting they had voted.
Afghan forces and NATO military commanders nevertheless proclaimed a victory against the insurgents, suggesting the absence of suicide bombers on election day was an indication that security was improving.
While the Taliban has not yet claimed responsibility for Tuesday's bomb blast, it matched the pattern of their attacks, striking in the heart of an Afghan city.
Mohammad Sher Shah, Kandahar's deputy police chief, said insurgents were to blame. "Once again, they've killed children, women, innocent Afghans. They are not human. They are animals," he said.
Last night, many Kandaharis took cover in their homes, taking in other families who had lost everything in the blast.
"All of our homes and our rooms have been destroyed," said Ahmadullah, who like many Afghans has only one name.
"We were lucky, we were sitting in the compound of our house to eat dinner. Only two of my children were hurt by flying glass," he said.
A shopkeeper said he was walking home when the force of the blast threw him off his feet.
"All of the fruit and grocery shops are gone. All of the people inside have died. I was only saved because I went to my house for dinner. My shop is gone. My friends are dead," he said.
Nik Mohammad arrived on the scene a few minutes after the explosion.
"There was a lot of confusion and some shooting," he said. "People tried to help each other and the road was full of blood. Most of the shopkeepers are buried under cement. I don't think any of them will survive," he said, still very much shaken.
"Our home was completely destroyed. But I am lucky. I am alive."