Kandahar, Afghanistan A suicide bomber penetrated a crowd watching a dog-fighting competition in the Taliban's former stronghold Sunday, killing up to 80 people in one of the bloodiest bombings since the regime's 2001 ouster.
The attack follows a year of record violence and predictions that the Afghan conflict could turn even deadlier this year.
Several hundred people, including Afghan militia leaders, had gathered in a barren dirt field to watch the event on the western edge of the southern city of Kandahar. Witnesses reported gunfire from bodyguards after the blast, but it was not immediately clear if the bullets killed or wounded anyone.
A prominent militia commander who stood up against the Taliban was killed in the attack and officials said he may have been the target. The bombing crumpled several Afghan police trucks and turned the field a bloody red.
Death tolls fluctuated. Kandahar Gov. Asadullah Khalid said 80 people died, while the Health Ministry said 70 were killed and 70 wounded. The Interior Ministry first said 80 died and then revised the toll to 65.
The previous deadliest bombing in Afghanistan killed about 70 people in November.
Khalid blamed the attack on "the enemy of Afghanistan" - which typically means the Taliban.
However, a Taliban spokes-man denied the militia was behind the attack. "That is not our work and I will not take responsibility for it," said Qari Yousef Ahmadi.
The U.S., which already has some 28,000 forces in the country, is sending an additional 3,200 Marines in April, most of whom are expected to be stationed in Kandahar during their seven-month tour.