Kandahar (Afghanistan) (AFP) - A Taliban suicide bomber killed five people and wounded dozens of others, mainly children as young as five, after detonating a car packed with explosives at a police headquarters in southern Afghanistan Wednesday.
It was the insurgents' first major attack since US President Donald Trump announced in Washington late Monday that he was committing American troops to the war-torn country indefinitely.
"A suicide bomber detonated an explosive-filled car in a parking lot near the main police headquarters in Lashkar Gah," Omar Zhwak, a spokesman for the governor of Helmand province, told AFP.
"Our initial information shows that five civilians were killed and 25 were wounded, including women and children," he added.
The car park was full of people queueing to get into the police headquarters when the explosion happened, said Zhwak.
The attack occurred at 8:00 am (0330 GMT) when officials would have been arriving for work and civilians were preparing to lodge inquiries.
Zhwak added that a nearby mosque, which was being used as a madrassa or Islamic religious school, had been been damaged. Children -- aged between five and 12, according to police -- were studying there at the time.
Hospital staff gave a higher figure for wounded.
"We have received 38 wounded -- mostly schoolchildren -- and five dead, including two women and two soldiers," Mauladad Tabihdad, director of hospitals in Helmand, told AFP.
Photos posted on Twitter by Afghan media outlets showed damaged Afghan military Humvee vehicles, including one apparently thrown into a drain by the force of the explosion.
"The car bomb targeted a number of army vehicles parked in the parking lot. We have reports of some casualties to army soldiers," Salam Afghan, a police spokesman, told AFP.
- 'Covered in blood' -
Ismail Jan, whose shop was damaged by the blast, said the explosion happened when a white car rammed into a convoy of six armoured military vehicles as they passed through a checkpoint inside the car park.
"I was thrown [by the blast] and when I got up I saw women and children covered in blood," Jan told AFP.
"I also saw a number of wounded children taken out of a nearby mosque."
The attack occurred a little over 24 hours after Trump cleared the way for thousands more US soldiers to be sent to Afghanistan, reversing earlier pledges to pull out.
The Taliban had called for a complete withdrawal of foreign forces and following Trump's announcement vowed to make the war-weary country a "graveyard" for US forces.
It also came shortly before President Ashraf Ghani called for the Taliban to join peace talks in an address to the nation.
The Taliban quickly claimed Wednesday's attack in a text message sent to journalists. "We targeted army tanks, killing dozens," it read.
Ordinary Afghans have paid a heavy price for the 16-year US-led war and analysts have warned that Trump's renewed commitment could fuel the insurgency and lead to more casualties.
Civilian deaths are at their worst since records began in 2009. In the first half of the year, 1,662 civilians were killed and more than 3,500 injured, according to the United Nations.
The attack was also the latest blow to Afghanistan's beleaguered security forces.
The resurgent Taliban have been ramping up their campaign against government forces, underscoring rising insecurity during the summer fighting season when the warmer weather tends to spur an increase in attacks.
Afghan police and troops -- beset by a high death toll, desertions and non-existent "ghost soldiers" on the payroll -- have been struggling to beat back the insurgents since US-led NATO troops ended their combat mission in December 2014.
Casualties among Afghan security forces soared by 35 percent in 2016, with 6,800 soldiers and police killed, according to US watchdog SIGAR.
More than 2,500 Afghan police and troops were killed from January 1 to May 8.