KABUL, Afghanistan -- A suicide bomber blew himself up in a crowded bazaar in central Afghanistan yesterday, killing at least 17 other people and injuring 51, officials said.
At least a dozen of the dead were children, the Afghan Interior Ministry said in a statement. It was one of the most deadly attacks in a year that has already seen an escalation in suicide bombings by Taliban insurgents.
"Some of the children were walking to school, while other children were selling goods in the market," said Gen. Qasem Khan, the police chief of Oruzgan province, where the explosion ripped through a bazaar in the town of Deh Rawood.
Among the injured were eight NATO troops who might have been the bomber's intended target. U.S. Air Force Maj. John Thomas said that a foot patrol of alliance soldiers was in the market at the time.
The nationalities of the injured soldiers were not released, but that part of Afghanistan, a region where the insurgency is particularly intense, is normally under the protection of Dutch troops.
The bomber apparently detonated himself outside a pharmacy as the North Atlantic Treaty Organization patrol entered the bazaar, Khan said. Seven shops were destroyed by the force of the blast.
The town, in a remote part of Oruzgan not far from the border of Kandahar province, is a magnet for residents of nearby villages who do their shopping there.
"An explosive like that was fairly indiscriminate, and they would have to know there would be civilians killed or injured," Thomas said of the insurgents. "These are the same extremists who recently have made calls for protecting civilians."
A Taliban fighter carried out the attack, said Qari Yousef Ahmadi, a spokesman for the hard-line militia.
Both the United Nations and NATO criticized the Taliban over the civilian deaths. The U.S. and NATO have taken heat this year over Afghan civilians killed by Western military action.
"Such utter disregard for innocent lives is staggering, and those behind this must be held responsible," said the U.N.'s top representative in Afghanistan, Tom Koenigs.
The issue of civilian deaths has become a sensitive one in Afghanistan recently, but not because of insurgent attacks. More than 500 Afghan civilians were reported killed during the first half of this year. For the first time since the war began in 2001, the majority of the victims in a six-month period died in operations carried out by U.S. troops and their NATO allies.
Western military officials say they regret the deaths of bystanders. They insist that such casualties are never deliberate but rather the result of increasingly ruthless tactics by the Taliban, including the use of civilians as human shields.
The rise in civilian deaths has stoked growing disenchantment among Afghans with the government of President Hamid Karzai and some dissension among allied forces as to the nature of their mission in this country. Last month witnessed a dramatic upsurge in the killing of civilians, including 100 people whose deaths within the space of a single week were blamed on NATO air or artillery strikes in the south.
The deadliest Taliban suicide attack in Afghanistan since Western forces overthrew the radical fundamentalist group's regime more than five years ago was June 17, when a bus full of police recruits was blown up in Kabul, killing 35 people.
M. Karim Faiez and Henry Chu write for the Los Angeles Times. The Associated Press contributed to this article.