KABUL, April 29: Taliban militants killed at least 18 Afghans, including seven civilians, and wounded 31 more in a suicide bomb attack on a drug eradication team in eastern Afghanistan on Tuesday, the interior ministry said.

The Taliban have vowed to step up suicide attacks this year, to undermine the faith of Afghans in the ability of their government to provide security and to sap support in the West for the continued presence of international troops in the country.

The bomber targeted an opium poppy eradication team led by the district chief, tribal elders and police officers as they left the local government headquarters in Khogiani, a town south of the city of Jalalabad and close to the Pakistan border.

Gunmen opened fire with small arms and rocket-propelled grenades following the suicide attack, the Nato-led International Security Assistance Force (Isaf) said.

“This event proves that ... cultivation and production of narcotics in Afghanistan is inseparably related to terrorist forces,” the interior ministry said in a statement.

Afghanistan last year produced 93 per cent of the world’s opium which is processed to make heroin and exported to the West.

Illegal drugs may be worth more than $3 billion a year to the Afghan economy, and United Nations drug experts say the Taliban impose a 10 per cent tax on poppy farmers who produce opium and also on the drug traffickers to finance militancy.

Drug production is highest in the areas of Afghanistan where the Taliban are strongest, but the Afghan government has made progress in eliminating poppy crops in some areas, such as around Jalalabad, where it has tightened its grip on security.

The Taliban launched more than 140 suicide attacks across the country targeting foreign and Afghan government forces last year, but most of the victims -- around 200 -- were civilians.

The conflict has steadily picked up in the south and east in recent weeks as spring arrives and mountain snows melt.

A US general warned last week there could be higher levels of violence in Afghanistan this year, with many attacks in the east originating across the border in lawless tribal areas of Pakistan where Afghan officials say militants enjoy a safe haven.

The latest blast in the east came as US Marines began moving in to capture a town from Taliban militants in the south, their first large operation in Afghanistan since arriving to reinforce Nato troops last month.—Reuters

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