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Dozens of casualties in Afghanistan suicide attack as violence flares

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Dozens of casualties in Afghanistan suicide attack as violence flares

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By Abdul Qadir Sediqi and Ahmad Sultan

KABUL (Reuters) - A suicide bomber in Afghanistan killed about 20 people and wounded dozens on Tuesday at a gathering on the highway between the eastern city of Jalalabad and the main border crossing into neighbouring Pakistan, officials said.

The blast, less than a week after a suicide attack that killed more than 20 people in the capital, Kabul, came as violence has flared across Afghanistan, with heavy fighting in northern provinces over recent days.

There was no immediate claim of responsibility for the attack, which the provincial governor's office said killed at least 19 people and wounded 57 more, although the total remains unclear, amid conflicting official reports.

Sohrab Qaderi, a member of the Nangarhar provincial council, said at least 30 bodies had been taken to hospital, but the toll could rise.

The violence has dampened hopes of peace talks to end the 17-year conflict in Afghanistan but on Tuesday, two Taliban officials told Reuters the movement was preparing for another meeting with U.S. officials following one in July.

As yet, there is little sign yet of Afghanistan becoming more secure and stable before a parliamentary election next month and a presidential election in April.

Nangarhar, one of the main strongholds of Islamic State fighters since early 2015, has been one of the most volatile regions this year, with a string of suicide bombings and attacks on its capital, Jalalabad.

Officials and elders said Tuesday's attack targeted a gathering to protest against a local police commander, adding that hundreds of people were present when the blast happened.

Qaderi said rescue efforts were being hampered by reports of another suicide bomber in the area, making police and emergency services cautious about approaching the scene.

The explosion followed a series of smaller blasts on Tuesday that targeted schools in Jalalabad and surrounding districts, killing at least one person and wounding three.

In the northern province of Sar-e Pul, hundreds of armed men assembled to boost the city's defences as security forces fought to push the Taliban back from the city centre, said Zabihullah Amani, the provincial governor's spokesman.

There were no reports of U.S. strikes in Sar-e Pul on Tuesday but there were three strikes on Monday, a spokesman for U.S. forces in Afghanistan said in an emailed statement.

Two air strikes in Baghlan province on Tuesday followed six the day before and American advisers were on the ground supporting Afghan troops, the spokesman added.

Ghulam Mohammad Balkhi, deputy spokesman for the Afghan army's 209 Corps, said at least 30 Taliban fighters were killed in the joint operation.

(Additional reporting by Ahmad Sultan, Rafiq Sherzad, Abdul Matin Sahak; Writing by James Mackenzie; Editing by Clarence Fernandez)

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