KANDAHAR, Afghanistan (AP) _ A powerful car bomb exploded Friday as a U.S. military convoy passed by, and police officials reported at least four American soldiers were seriously wounded. A U.S. spokeswoman said that according to an initial assessment, one soldier was hurt.
A policeman at the scene, Tor Jan, and several witnesses told The Associated Press that two of the soldiers had died. Gen. Salim Khan, deputy police chief of Kandahar province, would not confirm that account.
``When our forces reached the scene of the explosion, they saw four American soldiers lying on the road covered in blood. They were seriously wounded,'' Khan said. ``I do not know if any of them died.''
The attack was one of several reported across southern Afghanistan late Thursday and Friday. More than 600 people, including soldiers, international workers and civilians, have died in violence in Afghanistan this year.
Master Sgt. Ann Bennett, a spokeswoman for the U.S. military in Kabul, confirmed that an explosion had occurred on the road right outside a joint military-civilian reconstruction team headquarters, but said her initial report listed just one soldier wounded and one vehicle damaged.
It was impossible to immediately clarify the discrepancy, and the identity of the U.S. military unit hit in the attack wasn't known.
A Taliban spokesman, Abdul Hakim Latifi, claimed responsibility for the bombing.
``We carried out the attack on the U.S. forces,'' he said in a satellite phone call to The Associated Press from an undisclosed location. ``We have said it again and again that we will fight jihad against U.S. forces, their international allies and their Afghan supporters.''
Latifi has contacted AP and other news organizations with Taliban statements in the past, and appears to speak for the shadowy group. It is impossible, however, to independently verify his comments.
About 60 U.S. solders and more than 100 Afghan security forces cordoned off the area, a busy road that leads from the American base to the center of town, warning journalists not to take pictures. But the charred remains of one car _ presumably the one carrying the bomb _ could be seen. It appeared to be a taxi.
Khan said authorities believed the bomb was set off by remote control, as no body was found inside the wreckage.
U.S. soldiers, with sniffer dogs, were frisking at least six men who had been made to sit on the ground with their hands raised in the air.
Kandahar is the main city in southern Afghanistan, and home to a large U.S. base. It has been the site of frequent attacks, usually against convoys making their way on dusty roads.
Meanwhile, suspected Taliban rebels opened gun fire at Afghan government troops and election workers in two separate attacks in Helmand province, which borders Kandahar to the west. The attacks sparked shootouts in which four fighters were killed, said Haji Mohammed Wali, a spokesman for the Helmand governor.
The first attack occurred late Thursday in the district of Mama Karez, as the soldiers patrolled in a pickup truck. Three Taliban soldiers were killed during the one-hour gun battle that ensued. Later Thursday, two Taliban militiamen riding on motorcycles opened fire on two pickup trucks carrying Afghan election workers in Lashkargah, the capital of Helmand, Wali said.
Security guards accompanying the election officials returned fire, killing one attacker, he said. The election workers were not hurt.
The bombing in Kandahar comes one day after the military announced the pullout of the 2,400-strong 22nd Marine Expeditionary Unit that had been patrolling in southern Afghanistan since March. The Marines were staying at the Kandahar base awaiting their departure to American warships in the region.
The Camp Lejeune, N.C.-based force had killed more than 100 enemy fighters during their tour of duty in Afghanistan, losing just one of their own.
They had been part of a push to beef up the U.S. presence here ahead of landmark October elections, but their pullout was widely expected because of the normal rotation of Marine Expeditionary Units, who normally spend a period of months in any one place.
Taliban remnants and al-Qaida fighters have managed to keep up a drumbeat of violence, much of it against election workers, leading to concern that the vote will be able to take place in a free and fair atmosphere.
In January, a double bombing killed 15 people, all but two of them children, on a street in Kandahar regularly used by U.S. forces. In December, a suspected member of the Taliban threw a grenade at a U.S. military vehicle in the city, wounding two American soldiers.
More recently, motorcycle gunmen fatally shot Hamid Agha, the government's head of refugee affairs in Kandahar city on June 15.