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The worst attack in Afghanistan's rising insurgency has killed a major police commander and his men, weakening Kandahar's defences and rattling the confidence of an already frightened city.

Bloodstains, sandals, and hunks of flesh littered a rocky field on the city's western outskirts where an explosion ripped through a crowd yesterday morning.

Hundreds of men had gathered in the first warm days of the season to watch a dogfight, a popular sporting event, when witnesses saw a suicide bomber push his way into the throng.

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Most estimates of the dead were far higher than the Interior Ministry's official count of 65: The hospital registered at least 74; Kandahar's governor said 80; and local health and security sources put the number at between 105 and 125.

The true scale of the carnage will likely remain a mystery because many tribesmen took their dead for burial without contacting authorities.

Even the number of injured cannot be known, said Sharifa Seddiqi, director of the city's hospital, because many people gave up on the jammed emergency wards and took their wounded for private care.

"We can't know the real total," she said.

The death toll will probably surpass last year's suicide bombing in the northern city of Baghlan, which killed about 70 people, security officials say, and one death in particular will have serious consequences for the war: that of Abdul Hakim Jan, a well-known police commander.

Mr. Jan appears to have been the bomber's main target. An uneducated warrior with several tattoos and a fondness for blue clothing, his feud with the Taliban stretched back to the birth of the movement in 1992. He resisted the Taliban so fiercely in those early years, he said, that he once armed his wives with Kalashnikov rifles in case of Taliban attack.

Recently his band of auxiliary police served as guardians of Arghandab district on the city's northern flank, a role that grew more important after last year's death of another former mujahedeen, Mullah Naqib, who also protected that key district.

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"He was the biggest, strongest commander in Arghandab," said Kalimullah Naqibi, Mr. Naqib's son.

Mr. Jan was relaxing on a blanket spread in front of his sport-utility vehicle, surrounded by bodyguards, when the bomber approached within a few metres and detonated himself.

"I saw two people with their heads blasted off," said Janan, 35, weeping at the scene. "So many people are dead."

Some witnesses described the bomber wearing a police uniform, but others disagreed. Several people claimed they saw frightened police firing at civilians in the aftermath, possibly killing up to a dozen people, but authorities did not confirm any shooting.

Malim Akbar Khan Khakrezwal, a former intelligence chief for Kandahar and now a prominent tribal elder, visited the blast site and inspected the corpse of the suspected bomber, wrinkling his nose as he leaned close to the remnants of the ruined body with short dark hair.

"He is a foreigner, I think," Mr. Khakrezwal said, referring to the bomber. "Where was our intelligence? Where was NATO? We have a lot of foreigners helping us, but they didn't find him. Why were they sleeping?"

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The retired major-general, who belongs to the same tribe as the slain police commander, said Mr. Jan had not long ago confided in him about recent Taliban attempts on his life.

Insurgents telephoned him with threats, saying he should allow Taliban into the district or else face death. Mr. Jan defied the insurgents and the authorities later discovered - and defused - a cache of artillery shells wired to explode under the same dog-fighting field that Mr. Jan regularly attended. Another booby trap, a land mine on the road, also seemed intended for the police commander.

"The governor told him many times, stay away from the dogfights and other big ceremonies," Mr. Khakrezwal said. "But he said, 'No, I'm always at war, always fighting, and never killed so far.' "

A Taliban spokesman said it's too early to confirm or deny whether the insurgents were involved, but they are widely suspected. The Taliban have previously denied responsibility for attacks that inflict many civilian casualties.

Several sources described Mr. Jan's younger brother, Talib Aga, or his deputy, Ahmed Aga, as possible successors, but it's unclear how quickly they can repair the damaged police ranks. Estimates of the number of police killed alongside their commander ranged from 10 to 50, with others injured.

That may represent a significant loss; although such an important district may have hundreds of police on its official payroll, usually a small fraction of those forces exist.

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The disorder within police ranks was aggravated over the weekend by Governor Asadullah Khalid's decision to fire between 100 and 250 officers in Maywand district, catching his Canadian allies by surprise. The police units were accused as a group of rampant corruption and relieved of their posts, a provincial official said; they have been replaced by freshly trained recruits from elsewhere in the country.

Ahmed Wali Karzai, provincial council chairman, said the losses and firings among the local security forces won't leave Kandahar any more vulnerable than before.

"Our enemy had a great victory," Mr. Karzai said, referring to yesterday's attack. "But the people of Afghanistan have lived with this kind of violence for 30 years. Most of them are not afraid."

But the city was uneasy last night: A mining crew collapsed a rock face outside the city after dark, causing a flurry of panicky telephone calls among residents as they tried to establish whether the loud noise was another insurgent attack.

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