An explosion in a Kandahar city mosque today killed the province's top religious scholar and four other mourners during a funeral service for President Hamid Karzai's slain younger brother, the latest victims in the spiralling violence that the United Nations says killed and maimed a record number of Afghan civilians in the last six months.
Mr. Karzai had already left for the capital and was not present, but a crowd of other relatives and local officials had gathered at the mosque to pay their condolences following the murder three days ago of Ahmed Wali Karzai, the President's confidant and Kandahar's chief powerbroker.
Police officials said the blast was the work of a suicide bomber who hid a bomb in his turban, the traditional headdress that many Afghan men wear.
Fifteen other people, including a member of the Afghan upper house of parliament, were wounded.
Kandahar Governor Tooryalai Wesa, who was at the mosque, told the Associated Press that he saw the man's turban explode.
"There was a prayer going on and after that prayer the man came close to the director of the religious council and exploded," Mr. Wesa said. "It looks like he was targeting the director."
The attack underscored new UN findings that civilian casualties in the ongoing Afghanistan conflict have reached an all-time high, with eight out of 10 of the deaths since January attributable to the Taliban and other insurgent groups.
Staffan de Mistura, the special representative of the UN Secretary General in Afghanistan, said he expected the Taliban to dispute the findings as it did the previous UN report that found insurgents were responsible for 72 per cent of civilian casualties in the last six months of 2010.
While spectacular insurgent attacks on landmark buildings grab headlines, like the assault by nine suicide bombers on a hotel in Kabul last month, the leading cause of civilian casualties was improvised explosive devices used by the Taliban.
"Regardless of whether they are happy or unhappy - and I know they will be unhappy - more than 79 per cent of the civilian casualties are caused by them," said Mr. de Mistura. "And these are not just figures. These are names. These are people. These are men, women, children. These are Afghan people."
A status report by its human rights monitoring team, released today, said 1,462 Afghan civilians died during the period, a spike of 15 per cent compared to the six-month period in 2010.
May and June, according to the study, were the deadliest months since the UN began tracking civilian casualties in 2007. In the same period, by comparison, 281 foreign soldiers died in the fighting in Afghanistan, according to the monitoring website, icasualties.org.
Increasingly, according to UN officials, the Taliban and other insurgent groups have shifted tactics and using crude pressure-plate mines that may be meant to kill foreign troops or other declared enemies. Instead, they kill indiscriminately.
Two-thirds of those mines seen in recent months contain about 20 kilograms of explosive, more than twice as much as in a standard anti-tank mine.
But the mines are calibrated to detonate under the pressure of as little as 10 kilograms - the weight of a child - on up to 100 kilograms, the weight of a mini-van packed with a family on its way to market.
"That is why they are so terrible, because they are simple to be produced, easy to be found in terms of material and totally indiscriminate," said Mr. de Mistura.
The Taliban has contested previous UN reports on civilian casualties, claiming they underreported deaths caused from airstrikes and other actions by the NATO-led foreign forces in Afghanistan.
The group also dismissed the latest figures as biased, saying that its fighters are under orders to avoid civilian casualties. "We take care not to kill civilians," said Qari Yousef, a Taliban spokesman. "But this is a war."
Mr. Yousef also said the Taliban was not responsible for the bombing in the Kandahar mosque.
Afghans killed in the conflict since the beginning of the year included people targeted by the Taliban because they worked with foreigners or with the government, even in a position as lowly as a municipal clerk. The UN said it documented 191 targeted killings, compared to 181 in the same period last year.
Another 127 Afghans working on construction projects and as civilian contractors were singled out for assassination by insurgents, according to the report.
The casualties also included men, women and children who died in insurgent attacks on two hospitals. Others died from bombs placed in ice cream trucks and scattered on country roads. In one recent incident, an eight-year-old girl was killed when a bomb she was unwittingly carrying was detonated by remote control as she approached a policeman.
Mr. de Mistura said the UN mission in Afghanistan had been in contact with the Taliban to check over a list of incidents that the insurgent group claimed were the fault of NATO operations.
While its interest in debating the numbers may show a willingness to address the issue, he added, the Taliban's declared list of enemies remains at odds with international law. Its spokesman said it did not consider Afghans working for the government or foreigners to be civilians.
The proportion of casualties due to actions by NATO-led foreign troops declined over the same period last year to 14 per cent of the total, the UN report said. It listed 79 Afghan civilians killed in airstrikes, more than half from helicopter strikes.
While fewer in number than those caused by insurgents, each case of an Afghan injured or killed by foreign forces has wide repercussions. "While there has been an effort and there has been a reduction," said Mr. de Mistura, "we are also aware that for an international force [created]to protect civilians, one mistake is one mistake too many."