KABUL — A truck filled with explosives that police believe may have been destined for Kabul blew up on a highway Thursday, killing 25 people _ more than half of them children walking to school. Two American soldiers died in combat as the U.S. military reported the number of roadside bombs in Afghanistan last month was nearly three times the figure for Iraq.
The attacks served as a grim reminder that the bloody conflict is widening, even as thousands of U.S. troops are being sent to Afghanistan to try to turn the tide against the Taliban-led insurgency, which has made a comeback after the Islamic extremist movement was ousted from power in 2001.
The blast occurred about 7 a.m. as police were trying to clear a traffic jam on a highway in Logar province after the truck, which was loaded with timber, had overturned the night before. Suddenly, explosives hidden beneath the timber detonated, killing 21 civilians and four policemen, Interior Ministry spokesman Zemerai Bashary said.
At least 13 of the dead were children on their way to school, provincial official Kamaluddin Zadran said. Three children were missing, he added.
It was unclear why the explosives detonated. Provincial police chief Mustafa Khan said the truck overturned late Wednesday as it traveled on the main road from Logar to Kabul and militants detonated it remotely when police tried to clear the way.
However, another police official said investigators were looking into the possibility that militants were trying to smuggle explosives into Kabul and the explosives detonated accidentally. He spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not supposed to release information to media.
Kabul, the headquarters of the Afghan government where most international missions are based, is heavily guarded and has been largely spared from the violence that has rocked Baghdad for years. But rumors have been circulating that the Taliban were planning attacks in the capital ahead of the Aug. 20 presidential election.
Associated Press Television News footage from the scene showed the explosion left a huge crater in the road. People collected the remains of the dead, wrapping them in white and colored shrouds. Nearby mud houses collapsed from the blast.
Policeman Lal Mohammad said he was about 100 yards (meters) from the blast and saw "a big fire and smoke from the main road."
He ran to the scene and saw bloodied survivors and body parts littering the scene.
"I collected five bodies myself and then picked up body parts," said Mohammad. The shock wave collapsed a wall of Mohammad's home 200 years (meters) away.
Also Thursday, the U.S. military announced that two American service members were killed in a roadside bombing the day before in southern Afghanistan. No further details were released.
Their deaths brought to at least 647 the number of U.S. service members who have died in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Uzbekistan since the war began in 2001. Of those, at least 480 were killed in combat.
Bombs have become the militants' weapon of choice in Afghanistan, and the number of such attacks has spiked this year, as thousands of additional American troops have joined the fight. President Barack Obama has ordered 21,000 additional troops to Afghanistan and expects the total number of U.S. forces here to reach 68,000 by year's end.
That's double the number of U.S. troops in Afghanistan in 2008 but still half as many as are now in Iraq.
Pentagon figures made available Thursday showed that in June, there were 736 incidents in Afghanistan involving bombs that either detonated or were found and defused. Those that exploded killed 23 coalition troops and wounded 166 others. The May figures showed 465 bombing incidents that killed 12 foreign troops.
The June figures were nearly three times higher than the 260 bomb incidents reported in Iraq, the Pentagon said.
Elsewhere, Afghan and coalition troops battled Taliban militants who attacked a government center in Suri district of Zabul province early Thursday, police said. Fifteen insurgents were killed and another was detained, according to provincial police chief Abdul Rehman Sarjang.
He said there were no casualties among Afghan and international forces.
Associated Press writers Noor Khan in Kandahar and Rahim Faiez and Amir Shah in Kabul contributed to this report.