A Taliban suicide bomber blew himself up among men washing in a bathhouse ahead of Friday prayers, killing 17, in an attack that showed militants can still largely strike at will in southern Afghanistan despite a NATO offensive.
Roadside bombs also killed three NATO service members in the south and east, while gunmen shot dead a police inspector in Kandahar's provincial capital, bringing the day's death toll to 21. Authorities said they suspect the Taliban assassinated the police inspector.
The bathhouse bombing in the Kandahar province town of Spin Boldak, just across the border from Pakistan, was the deadliest single attack in Afghanistan in more than a month.
The Taliban -- in an unusual step given that 16 of the dead were civilians -- quickly claimed responsibility. A Taliban spokesman in the south, Qari Yousaf Ahmadi, said the blast targeted the deputy of an influential border police chief.
The bomber struck around noon, as men gathered in the bathhouse on the main road heading out of Spin Boldak to the Pakistani border, witnesses and officials said. Located in the town's main market, the bathhouse is near a mosque popular with travelers going back and forth from Pakistan.
President Hamid Karzai, whose government has been battling the Taliban while trying to bring them to the negotiating table, denounced the bombing as an un-Islamic act.
While U.S. President Obama's administration has claimed some success in the south, it has acknowledged that the gains are reversible. The Taliban continue to carry out suicide bombings and plant roadside bombs that kill Afghan and coalition forces, as well as civilians.
As NATO has poured troops into the south, the insurgents have expanded their operations to other parts of Afghanistan once considered relatively safe, such as the north.