MAZAR-I-SHARIF, Afghanistan - A suicide bomber killed 19 people including women and children Wednesday when he blew himself up in a northern Afghan market, as militants intensify their annual summer offensive despite nascent peace talks.
The attack in Almar district of Faryab province, bordering Turkmenistan, highlights the heavy toll of such attacks on civilians after 13 years of war.
No group claimed responsibility for the suicide bombing, which comes just before another round of peace negotiations between the government and Taliban militants are due to start.
The suicide attacker detonated his explosives-laden vest in the main market of the volatile district of Almar, killing at least 19 people, according to Faryab police chief Subhan Quli Ebrahimi and the United Nations.
"Women, children and at least one Afghan army soldier were among those killed," Faryab governor Abdul Sattar Barez told AFP, adding that around three dozen others were wounded.
Almar district chief Saleh Mohammad Saleh said that some of the wounded were in a critical condition and had been taken to the provincial capital Maimanah.
"We had received intelligence reports that a suicide attacker has entered the market in Almar, so we set up a police check point to search for him," local police commander Saif, who goes by one name, told AFP.
"We were looking for him when he blew himself up near an armoured military vehicle," Saif said, adding that the attacker was aged between 20 and 25.
Almar has been tense for weeks after the Taliban launched a major offensive and took control of several villages.
Government forces launched a counter offensive earlier this week but have struggled to regain territory, with skirmishes frequently reported between both sides.
Taliban insurgents, who launched their annual summer offensive in late April, have stepped up attacks on government and foreign targets despite official efforts to jumpstart peace talks.
Civilians often fall victim to such attacks, with almost 1,000 Afghan civilians killed during the first four months of the year, according to the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA).
"(Wednesday's) horrific attack against civilians in a market demonstrates an appalling disregard for human life," UNAMA chief Nicholas Haysom said in a statement.
"UNAMA has repeatedly called for an immediate ban on weapons which kill indiscriminately and that are used in civilian-populated areas." President Ashraf Ghani's government has drawn criticism for failing to end the spike in violence, which critics partly blame on the protracted delay in the appointment of a defence minister.
The crucial post has not been filled since Ghani came to power last September.
US-led NATO forces ended their combat mission in Afghanistan in December, leaving local forces to battle the Taliban alone, but a 13,000-strong residual force remains for training and counter-terrorism operations.
Afghan officials sat down with Taliban cadres this month in Murree, a tourist town in the hills north of Islamabad, Pakistan, for their first face-to-face talks aimed at ending the bloody insurgency.
They agreed to meet again in the coming weeks, drawing praise from Islamabad, Beijing, Washington and the United Nations.
Afghan officials have not said when and where the next round of negotiations will take place, but they are widely expected to be conducted in the coming days.
Earlier this month 33 people were killed in a suicide attack at a military base in the eastern province of Khost and a few days later 25 civilians were wounded in a bombing inside a mosque in northern Baghlan province.