Kabul: Separate roadside bombings in volatile Helmand province today killed at least 26 people, including 21 members of a wedding party and five police officers, Afghan officials said.
Also today, the U.S. military reported the death a day earlier of an American soldier in western Afghanistan. That brought the number of U.S. troops killed so far this month to seven, out of a total of 11 Western military fatalities.
Violence has been surging in advance of Afghanistan's presidential and provincial assembly elections, which are to be held in two weeks. The vote is only the country's third nationwide election.
Helmand province, where insurgents have long had free rein in many districts, is the scene of major ongoing offensives by U.S. Marines and British forces.
The roadside bomb that hit the wedding party was almost certainly aimed at coalition troops, but like many improvised explosive devices planted by insurgents, it struck civilians instead.
A tractor carrying the party, which included women and children, set off the buried bomb on a road in Garmsir district, which Western troops have repeatedly tried to clear of insurgents. U.S. Marines occupied the district for much of last year.
In addition to those killed, at least five people were injured, said Helmand's police chief, Assadullah Sherzad.
Elsewhere in Helmand, a vehicle carrying Afghan police officers struck a roadside bomb in the Nad Ali district, another insurgent stronghold. Five were killed and three injured, the Interior Ministry said in a statement.
The military released few details about the latest American soldier to die. His patrol had "neutralized" several insurgents who were spotted planting roadside bombs, a statement said, but shortly afterward, they hit another IED.
Meanwhile, controversy erupted over new allegations that a Western airstrike resulted in civilian deaths in Kandahar province, which borders Helmand.
The police chief in Zhari district said five farmers were killed late Wednesday as they loaded produce into a truck, preparing to take it to Kandahar city. The U.S. military, however, said it was believed that the five were loading the truck with munitions.
Lt. Cmdr. Christine Sidenstricker, a U.S. spokeswoman, said the incident would be investigated, including a review of cockpit video from the Apache attack helicopter that carried out the strike.
Civilian casualties are a point of major tension between Western forces and Afghan officials. A United Nations report said deaths and injuries to noncombatants rose by nearly one-quarter in the first half of 2009, with about 60% of those casualties blamed on insurgents and the remainder on coalition forces.
The new NATO secretary-general, Anders Fogh Rasmussen, who is on a visit to Kabul, told a news conference Wednesday that the alliance would do everything in its power to avoid causing civilian casualties.
The new commander of U.S. and Western forces, Gen. Stanley McChrystal, has also ordered field commanders to make safeguarding civilian lives the top priority.