By RICHARD A. OPPEL Jr. and TAIMOOR SHAH
KABUL, Afghanistan — At least 13 Afghans were killed on Wednesday morning when a bomb exploded at a market in an attack aimed at a NATO-backed program to reduce opium cultivation in the restive southern province of Helmand, local authorities said.
Most of the victims were farmers and other Afghans lined up to receive fertilizer and seeds from the NATO-backed Food Zone program, which is designed to persuade farmers to switch from poppy cultivation, the most profitable crop in Helmand, to wheat and other crops.
Daoud Ahmadi, spokesman for the Helmand provincial governor, said 45 people were wounded, including eight children and a policeman. The attack took place between the provincial capital of Lashkar Gah and Gereshk, a volatile city with a significant Taliban presence about 25 miles to the north.
Helmand is a focus of the Taliban insurgency against the American-led coalition inAfghanistan.
An irrigation ditch near the attack turned red from blood flowing into the water, said the district governor of Gereshk, Haji Abdul Ahad Khan.
The acting Helmand provincial police chief, Col. Kamaluddin Khan, said the bomb was hidden on a bicycle, but Mr. Ahad Khan blamed a suicide bomber on a motorcycle.
The blast struck a busy shopping area known as the Wednesday bazaar, which is open one day a week and serves villagers from the area surrounding Gereshk who come to sell livestock, food and other goods and to buy their own supplies.
Local officials said the attack was clearly aimed at Afghans waiting to obtain aid from the seed-and-fertilizer-distribution program, which helps Afghans in Helmand who forego opium farming. Helmand accounts for the majority of the world’s poppy cultivation despite years of efforts by NATO to curb the industry.
“The Taliban and narcotics smugglers were behind this attack,” said Mr. Ahmadi, the spokesman for the Helmand provincial governor, Gulab Mangal, who has been a supporter of the Food Zone program and other western-backed efforts to reduce poppy cultivation.
“This was an attempt at intimidating people and stopping the process of development and peace building in the province,” Mr. Ahmadi said.
A statement from the NATO military command in Kabul said the attack took place in the Nahr-e Saraj district. Early reports indicated that at least 35 civilians were wounded along with an unspecified number killed but the “the nature of the explosion is currently unknown,” NATO said.
Richard A. Oppel Jr. reported from Kabul, Afghanistan and Taimoor Shah from Kandahar, Afghanistan. Sangar Rahimi contributed reporting from Kabul.