KANDAHAR - First came a deafening crash as the suicide bomber drove his vehicle headlong into a Nato convoy.
It was followed almost instantly by a stomach-churning blast that roared through the crowded streets of Kandahar. Then the flames began to erupt. It was followed immediately by prolonged gunfire, screeching of tyres, and the screams of people as we ran for shelter a hundred yards away.
As the sirens began and helicopter-gunships began to circle overhead, there was nothing much left of the suicide bomber amid the smouldering pile of blackened twisted metal which had been his car.
A British Land Rover with its machine guns jaggedly sticking up in the air had been catapulted on to the central reservation. Two other vehicles had lurched to stops and lay abandoned amid pools of blood, pockmarked with bullet holes.
Sunday's attack was aimed at a British Royal Marines convoy returning to Helmand. Three civilians were killed, 18 others were injured as were three of the marines. It took place on the main route to the airport, nicknamed the Baghdad Highway by the locals, in Kandahar, the birthplace of the Taleban, and where their resurgence has led to months of ferocious fighting.
Altogether 230 Afghans and 17 Nato troops have been killed in 106 suicide bombings this year, a bloody phenomenon new to Afghanistan, mirroring Iraq.
Suicide bombings were almost totally unknown during the long war against the Russians, where the Afghan weapon of choice to attack Soviet helicopters was the stinger missile.
Today, five years after the official end of the war, the death toll in the past 12 months alone has reached nearly 4000. And it was the fourth bombing in the Kandahar area in as few as five days. Two Canadians were killed a few days ago and it is a minor miracle that there were no British fatalities on Sunday, their soft-sided Land Rovers providing scant protection against suicide bombers and roadside bombs.
Local people and police officers claimed most of the civilian casualties were caused when the marines opened fire after the initial bombing. Doctors at the nearby Mirwais Hospital, where the injured were taken, reported that many of the wounds were caused by bullets.
But Nato officials insisted the men from 45 commando had acted in self-defence, opening fire on a vehicle which had ignored repeated warnings to stop and appeared to be heading towards them even as they were trying to get away from the suicide bomb. The five-vehicle British convoy, desperate to escape a potential trap on a road hemmed in by buildings, roared off with their injured towards Helmand. With helicopters patrolling, they headed off to the Nato base, leaving Afghan security forces and ambulances to deal with the carnage left behind.
A rusty white Toyota Corolla estate which the soldiers seem to have believed was coming towards them for a follow-up attack was by the side of the road shredded with bullet holes. A man either dead or dying, judging by the state of the ghastly injuries to his head, lay half sprawled out of the door.
Further along was another man who had been shot on his motorbike clutching his stomach, blood pouring through his fingers. We found him later at the hospital. His name was Abdul Rahim, he was a 30-year-old shopkeeper, and he was alive.
Among others shot was Lal Mohammed, a 29-year-old farmer. He shook his head. "I was hit twice in the arm. I was coming from my village to the city and I was in a taxi when they started firing. I did not know what was going on. I just remember shouting and shooting."
Rangeen Ali, 24, was walking to the shop when the bomb exploded. "Then the soldier started firing. I think they were scared. People were getting hurt. My cousin, Abdul Jabbar, was shot in the leg. He is just a tuk tuk driver, he has nothing to do with the Taleban."
This was Kandahar on Sunday where, until this week, there appeared to have been a brief decline of violence after months of attritional fighting. The British soldiers on their way back to Helmand had also received a little recent respite from the constant combat they had to undergo after entering Sangin.
This upsurge of violence is considered to be even more worrying because there appeared to be flickering signs of agreements being made to stem the fighting. A British withdrawal from Sangin had followed a deal made with village elders at Musa Qala, and the Nato forces here in Kandahar had been studying the situation there and considering deploying to Panjwayi, an area where there had been bitter clashes with the Taleban and their allies.
But there had been repeated claims from some senior Afghan officials that the deal at Musa Qala and other local agreements were nothing but a Taleban ploy to regroup without the presence of British forces, and that they would attack again when ready. They would say this has now started.
Both Nato and the Taleban view Kandahar as of paramount strategic and symbolic significance. The Taleban had vowed that they would reconquer Kandahar, the symbol of their own Pashtun people. According to senior Nato sources, the leaders of the predominantly Tajik and Uzbek Northern Alliance had warned that if that happened, they would take over Kabul, effectively splitting the country, and paving the way for a possible civil war.
Dying for a cause
* Suicide bombings are a bloody phenomenon new to Afghanistan.
* During the war against the Russians, the Afghan weapon of choice to attack Soviet helicopters was the stinger missile.
* There have been 106 suicide bombings this year, killing 230 Afghans and 17 Nato troops.