KABUL, Afghanistan -- The Taliban claimed responsibility yesterday for the country's worst bombing since the group fell from power more than five years ago, raising fears of a major escalation in the use of tactics employed to deadly effect by the insurgency in Iraq.
Thirty-five people, many of them police recruits, were killed when an explosion tore through a police academy bus in the Afghan capital during yesterday morning's rush hour. At least 35 people were injured.
The blast could be heard miles away, and produced scenes of carnage more familiar in Baghdad than Kabul.
Authorities were trying to determine whether the bomb had been planted on the bus or detonated by a suicide attacker. There were reports that the bomber might have jumped onto the bus as it stopped at a busy station in the central part of the city.
Since Friday, at least four suicide attacks have struck different parts of the country, including one in the capital Saturday.
The scale of yesterday's bombing eclipsed anything Afghanistan had seen since the Taliban was driven out by U.S.-led allied forces in December 2001. A car bombing in Kabul in September 2002 killed 30 people.
"It was a very, very successful suicide attack," a Taliban commander, Mullah Hayatullah Khan, told the Reuters news agency by satellite phone yesterday. "We have plans for more successful attacks in the future."
The fundamentalist Islamic group's claim of responsibility for the blast could not be independently verified, but such attacks increasingly have become a favored tactic of the Taliban. In March, senior Taliban commander Mullah Dadullah warned in an interview with British television that fighters were prepared to unleash a wave of suicide attacks on international troops. Afghan government officials and the police are also threatened, because the Taliban regards them as collaborators with illegitimate foreign occupiers.
"The suicide martyrs, those willing to blow themselves up, are countless," declared Dadullah, who was killed in a clash in May with U.S. and allied troops in southern Afghanistan.
Within weeks of Dadullah's statement, Afghan television began airing news reports of suspected suicide bombers being picked up by authorities in Kabul and elsewhere.
Striking Kabul in spectacular fashion yesterday, a workday in Afghanistan, is likely to have a psychological as well as military impact. U.S. and NATO forces have worked hard to maintain Kabul as an oasis of relative calm, shielded from the conflict gripping other parts of the country, mainly the south and east, where Taliban militants have been most resurgent. Armored convoys routinely move through Kabul, and heavy security is evident on the streets.
Throughout last winter, allied commanders warned of a looming offensive by the Taliban during the spring thaw, a period which analysts and officials said could be the tipping point between an Afghanistan on the path of peaceful reconstruction and one in danger of lapsing into bloodshed.
Over the past few months, coalition forces have gone on the offensive in contested areas such as the southern province of Helmand, resulting in frequent clashes with Taliban fighters. Dozens of insurgents have been reported killed, and some allied and Afghan officials have begun claiming success in preventing the Taliban from mounting its expected military campaign.
On a visit to Kabul two weeks ago, U.S. Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates told reporters that things were "slowly, cautiously headed in the right direction."
But recent events suggest that the Taliban may be modifying their strategy, away from larger-scale confrontations on the battlefield to pinpointed roadside bombs and suicide attacks of the kind that have stymied the United States in Iraq and chipped away support for the presence of foreign troops.
Besides the bombing in Kabul, three coalition soldiers and an Afghan interpreter were killed yesterday by a roadside bomb in Kandahar province, the cradle of the Taliban movement.
M. Karim Faiez and Henry Chu write for the Los Angeles Times.