KANDAHAR — Eighteen civilians died when a roadside bomb destroyed their minivan in southern Afghanistan's Helmand province on Friday, a day after a Taliban attack in Uruzgan killed 21 people.
The latest bomb blast comes as UN figures show civilian deaths up 15 per cent in the first half of this year, reaching record levels in the long war between insurgents and Kabul's Western-backed government, supported by NATO-led troops.
Afghan General Sayed Malook said the vehicle was in Nahri Sarraj district, travelling to the provincial capital Lashkar Gah 35 kilometres (20 miles) away, when it was hit.
"The reports that I've received from the scene indicate that all 18 people in the vehicle have been killed," said deputy police chief Kamaluddin Shirzai.
"We have been able to identify the bodies of one woman and three men so far," he said, adding that police were still working at the scene of the blast.
Cheap and easy to make, improvised explosive devices or IEDs are the Taliban's favoured weapon, responsible for the majority of civilian and security forces' deaths in the nearly 10-year war.
A spokesman for the rebel group denied responsibility for Friday's bomb.
The United Nations says civilian deaths from IEDs, the single largest killer of non-combatants, increased 17 per cent in the first six months of this year compared to the same period in 2010.
More than 1,400 Afghan civilians have been killed in the conflict this year, according to a recently released UN report.
According to the UN, insurgents are responsible for 80 per cent of civilian casualties, with 14 per cent caused by NATO and Afghan forces and the rest unknown.
The UN said earlier this month that increased fighting in the south and southeast, and the spread of the insurgency to parts of the west and north, meant "civilians experienced a downward spiral in protection".
Shirzai said four policeman were also killed and another wounded in a clash with insurgents overnight near where Friday's bomb went off, though it was not clear if the two incidents were connected.
"In the same area where the civilian van was hit, there was a clash last night between the police and the insurgents that resulted in four policemen killed and one wounded," he said.
"The gunfight erupted after a police patrol was ambushed by armed insurgents. The clash went on for over an hour," he said.
The latest deaths came a day after co-ordinated bomb and suicide attacks in the neighbouring province of Uruzgan killed 21 people.
The Taliban targeted an official's compound and a militia commander's base, and set off a motorcycle bomb at a nearby police headquarters, triggering five hours of fighting with security forces.
Australia, which has 1,550 soldiers in Uruzgan, on Friday condemned the attacks.
"Hard-line elements of the insurgency continue to pursue their campaign through violence and attempted targeted killings," said Major General Angus Campbell, commander of Australian troops deployed to the region.
"Yesterday they paid a heavy price for their ambitions with all insurgents killed while failing to achieve their mission."
The latest violence comes at a critical juncture in the near decade-long conflict as thousands of U.S. surge troops prepare to go home and other Western nations announce limited drawdowns.
All foreign combat forces are due to leave Afghanistan by the end of 2014 and last week a first set of security handovers from NATO to Afghan forces took place in seven parts of the country.