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At least 18 dead in Afghan blast

U.S. forces continue to hunt for remnants of al Qaeda and the Taliban in Afghanistan.
U.S. forces continue to hunt for remnants of al Qaeda and the Taliban in Afghanistan.

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KANDAHAR, Afghanistan (CNN) -- Authorities are blaming Friday's land mine explosion that killed at least 18 people on a bus outside Kandahar, Afghanistan, on remnants of the Taliban and forces loyal to an Islamic fundamentalist warlord.

The bus was taking villagers to the southern Afghan city for shopping when it hit a land mine between 9 and 9:30 a.m. (1 and 1:30 a.m. EST) about six miles (10 kilometers) south of Kandahar, a former Taliban stronghold.

The explosion destroyed the bus and left a large crater in the road.

"Our count is 18 dead and one injured," said Khalid Pashtoon, spokesman for the governor of Kandahar. "It was very hard to count these dead bodies because this was a very huge explosion. Most of the parts ... were not even recognizable."

There was no immediate claim of responsibility, but Afghan army commander Khan Mohammed Khan blamed remnants of the Taliban and forces loyal to Gulbedin Hekmatyar, a former prime minister during the civil war of the early 1990s.

Hekmatyar is a Islamic fundamentalist who later took refuge in Iran and who has sided with remaining Taliban and al Qaeda units to fight American troops, according to Afghan and U.S. intelligence sources.

"The war is still not over," Pashtoon said. "We are still fighting the al Qaeda and Taliban, and we are fully optimistic that pretty soon these kind of disasters will be over because the people of Afghanistan [are] particularly very tired and sick of continuous 23 years [of] fighting."

Friday's explosion was the worst single attack to hit Afghanistan since September when a car bomb killed 26 people in the capital of Kabul.

This week more than 500 U.S. and allied troops attacked rebels in the largest U.S. action on Afghan soil in nearly a year.

At least 18 members of the fundamentalist militia were killed in the battle near Spin Boldak, south of Kandahar, and allied troops searched caves in the mountains along the Pakistani border afterward.

While most of Afghanistan is reasonably stable following the U.S.-led war on terror that ousted the Taliban, rebels opposed to the U.S.-backed government of President Hamid Karzai remain active in eastern Afghanistan and across the border in Pakistan.

Between 7,000 and 8,000 U.S. troops are stationed in Afghanistan, leading the hunt for members of the hard-line Islamic regime and Osama bin Laden's al Qaeda network, blamed for the September 11 attacks on New York and Washington.

The United States has yet to find bin Laden or Taliban leader Mullah Mohammed Omar.

CNN producer Lonzo Cook contributed to this report.

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