KUNDUZ, Afghanistan: A suicide bomber tore through a crowd of Afghan demonstrators under a heavy police presence on Monday, killing 16 people in the northern city of Kunduz, officials said.
The attack took place in the main square of the city, the force of the explosives sending police riot gear, pieces of flesh, sandals and turbans flinging across the street.
Pools of blood lay next to discarded Kalashnikov rifles and shattered glass, along with bank notes from money exchange stalls that had been set up in the area, an AFP reporter said.
Reports of the death toll varied.
Doctor Shir Jan, who works at the Kunduz central hospital, initially said 21 bodies -- one of them a woman -- had been brought in after the attack, but after the chaos of the initial emergency passed, confirmed a death toll of 16 with 26 wounded.
Police said 15 people were killed, both civilians and police.
Local residents said that people had been gathering for a demonstration connected to the recent killing of civilians and that there had been a strong police presence.
"People had just gathered and were about to begin their demonstration. Police were trying to disperse them. I saw a police truck pass by, then suddenly there was a big bang and a huge column of smoke," said shopkeeper Abdul Sabor.
"I later saw scores of people and police covered in blood."
There was no immediate claim of responsibility but similar attacks in the past have been blamed on the Taliban and their Islamist allies fighting for 10 years to overthrow the Western-backed government and evict NATO troops.
Doctor Jan said three civilians and 13 police were killed.
Lal Mohammad Ahmadzai, the police spokesman for northern Afghanistan, said seven policemen and eight civilians were killed.
"The attacker was on foot. He blew up his explosives as people were about to hold a peaceful protest to condemn the indiscriminate killing of some civilians," Ahmadzai told AFP.
The attack comes just two days after a suicide bomber, whom police identified as a teenager, blew himself up outside NATO headquarters in Kabul, killing six youngsters aged 12 to 17.
The Taliban insurgency is traditionally centered in the south and the east, but Kunduz in the north has seen an increase in violence in recent years.
Last month, a bomb attached to a motorcycle killed 11 people in a market elsewhere in the province, in Archi district near the border with Tajikistan.
Earlier on Monday, the United States formally handed control to Afghanistan of more than 3,000 detainees at Bagram prison, as part of NATO plans to hand over national security to Afghans and withdraw its combat troops by the end of 2014.
US officials confirmed at the weekend that NATO withdrawals are on track with 117,000 foreign troops left in Afghanistan.
The United Nations says 1,145 civilians were killed in the war in the first six months of this year, blaming 80 percent of the deaths on insurgents.