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Suicide bomber kills 22 outside bank in E. Afghanistan: officials

A suicide bomber killed at least 22 people and wounded 50 others in an attack Saturday outside a bank in the eastern Afghan city of Jalalabad, provincial officials said.

"The explosion happened outside a bank where government employees collect their monthly salaries," Nangarhar provincial police chief Fazal Ahmad Shirzad told AFP.

Provincial government spokesman Ahmad Zia Abdulzai confirmed the attack and said dozens were killed and wounded. 

Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid denied responsibility.

The bombing comes as Afghanistan braces for what is expected to be a bloody push by the Taliban at the start of the fighting season.

The militants have stepped up attacks on government and foreign targets since Washington backpedalled on plans to shrink the U.S. force in Afghanistan this year by nearly half.

On April 10, a suicide car bomber killed three civilians in an attack targeting a NATO convoy in Jalalabad.

In the remote mountainous northeast province of Badakhshan, Taliban fighters killed 18 Afghan soldiers - including some who were beheaded - after storming an army outpost a week ago.

The pre-dawn raid in the Jurm district of Badakhshan province on April 10 marked a grim setback for Afghan forces, set to face their first fighting season in which they battle insurgents without full NATO support.

NATO's combat mission formally ended in December but a small follow-up foreign force has stayed on to train and support local security forces.

President Barack Obama last month announced a delay in U.S. troop withdrawals from Afghanistan, an overture to the country's new reform-minded leader, President Ashraf Ghani.

Hosting Ghani at the White House for their first presidential face-to-face meeting, Obama agreed to keep the current level of 9,800 U.S. troops until the end of 2015.

The Taliban, who have waged a deadly insurgency since they were ousted from power in late 2001, warned that the announcement would damage any prospects of peace talks as they vowed to continue fighting.

A U.S. watchdog said in a report last month that Afghan security forces were suffering heavy casualties on the battlefield and large numbers of troops were resigning or deserting their units.

Between October 2013 and September 2014, more than 1,300 Afghan army soldiers were killed in action and 6,200 were wounded, the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) said in its report.

Between September 2013 and September 2014, more than 40,000 personnel were dropped from Afghan National Army rolls, it added.

The Pentagon insists the Afghan forces are holding their own after the bulk of NATO combat forces withdrew last year.

But senior U.S. officers have voiced concern at the high casualty and attrition rates plaguing the Afghan army. (AFP)