Afghan ceasefire calm shattered as 12 die in mosque blast

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Kabul (AFP)

At least 12 people were killed in a mosque blast on the outskirts of the Afghan capital on Friday, shattering the relative calm of a holiday ceasefire between the warring Taliban and government forces.

Among those killed was the imam leading Friday prayers at the mosque on the second day of the Muslim festival of Eid al-Fitr. More than a dozen people were injured.

The explosion breaks a rare respite from violence that was being cautiously enjoyed by Afghans as part of a three-day truce which began Thursday between Taliban militants and Afghan forces, after weeks of intense fighting.

"The death toll has jumped to 12 killed including the imam of the mosque and 15 others are wounded," said Ferdaws Framurz, a spokesman for Kabul police, updating an earlier toll.

No group has so far claimed the attack and the Taliban denied responsibility. Afghan officials regularly blame such blasts on the militant group who in turn insist they are fighting the Afghan military and not attacking civilians.

The blast comes after Afghan officials on Friday said the United States had pulled out completely from a major southern air base in the former Taliban stronghold of Kandahar.

US airstrikes were launched from the base just last week to help Afghan forces push back a major Taliban offensive.

- Missed deadline -

Kandahar was the birthplace of the Taliban and has in recent months seen intense clashes between the resurgent militants and Afghan forces.

"They have not officially handed over the base to us but I can confirm they left the base on Wednesday," said Khoja Yaya Alawi, a spokesman for the Afghan army in Kandahar.

"The handover of Kandahar Airfield was coordinated" with senior Afghan leaders and the military, said Sonny Leggett, the US military spokesman in Afghanistan.

An Afghan army officer at Kandahar Airfield, who asked not to be named, told AFP that government forces would be left exposed by the pullout.

"It is now going to be very difficult for us to conduct operations," he said. "Our aircraft can't fly at night so the night operations are going to be difficult."

The airfield was formerly the second largest base for US and international troops in Afghanistan and the first airfield where US forces were stationed after the fall of the Taliban in 2001.

It was also the centre of the biggest drone operation by US special forces.

The military has for years been steadily decreasing its presence there, accelerated after Washington struck a deal with the Taliban last year to completely withdraw from Afghanistan in return for security guarantees.

However, the US missed the May 1 deadline, extending it to September 11 -- a move which angered the Taliban.

Although fighting between the US forces and the Taliban has stopped since the landmark agreement last year, battles rage daily between Afghan government forces and the militants.

Ceasefires in the past have largely held, in what is widely thought to be an exercise by the Taliban leadership to prove it has control over the myriad factions across the country that make up the hardline movement.

The Pentagon on Tuesday said it had so far completed between six and 12 percent of America's final withdrawal from the country.

A number of smaller bases have already been handed over to Afghan forces.