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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Suicide Attack Kills Afghan Pilgrims

LASHKAR GAH, Afghanistan -- A suicide bomber struck outside the compound of a southern Afghan provincial governor on Tuesday, killing 18 people, including several Muslim pilgrims seeking paperwork to travel to Mecca, officials said.

The attacker was stopped by Afghan soldiers at the compound's security gate, where he detonated his explosives vest, said Ghulam Muhiddin, spokesman for the Helmand provincial governor.

The bomber had been walking toward a vehicle of the private military contractors who provide security for the governor, said Squadron Leader Jason Chalk, a NATO spokesman.

Nine Afghan soldiers and nine civilians were killed, said Rahmatullah Mohammdi, director of the hospital in Lashkar Gah. Seventeen people were wounded, he said.

The governor, Mohammed Daoud Safi, was inside the compound and was not injured in the attack. His spokesman, Muhiddin, believed "innocent civilians and Afghan soldiers" -- not the governor -- were the bomber's targets.

Among the civilians waiting outside the compound were Afghan pilgrims seeking permission to travel to Mecca in Saudi Arabia, Muhiddin said. The main mosque in Lashkar Gah sits across from the compound.

Qari Yousaf Ahmadi, who claims to be a spokesman for Taliban affairs in southern Afghanistan, contacted The Associated Press and said the militant group was responsible for the attack. Ahmadi's exact ties to the militants are not known.

Militants have stepped up attacks in southern Afghanistan in recent months, including the use of roadside and suicide bombs. Twenty-one people died in Lashkar Gah in late August when a suicide bomber tried to kill a former police chief, and last week militants killed 19 construction workers riding on a bus in the neighboring Kandahar province.

Violent extremists have also been increasingly targeting Afghan officials, including the governor of eastern Paktia province, who was killed in a Sept. 10 suicide bombing.

A women's rights activist, who was the Kandahar provincial director for Afghanistan's Ministry of Women's Affairs, was killed Monday in a drive-by shooting.

Meanwhile, a bomb attack against a NATO patrol just south of the Afghan capital killed an Italian soldier and a child, officials said.

A remote-control bomb planted under a bridge detonated when a three-vehicle military convoy passed by, said Ali Shah Paktiawal, Kabul police criminal director.

Chief Corporal Major Giorgio Langella was killed in the blast, and five Italian soldiers were wounded, two seriously, the Italian defense ministry said in Rome.

A child riding in a car behind the convoy was killed, NATO said. Four other civilians in the car were wounded.

Two people were detained for questioning in the blast, which went off about 10 kilometers south of Kabul, police said.

Taliban-linked militants have stepped up their attacks across Afghanistan the last several months, though attacks in Kabul are still much rarer than in the country's south.

Attacks in the capital are mostly aimed at foreign military troops. On Sept. 8, a suicide car bomber rammed into a U.S. Humvee, killing 16 people, including two U.S. soldiers. The attack was Kabul's deadliest since the 2001 toppling of the Taliban.