Blast shakes Afghan capital

Taliban militants target office of U.S. contractor, killing at least 7 people

2 Americans among dead

Another explosion kills nine children at school

August 30, 2004|By Hamida Ghafour and Jube Shiver Jr. | Hamida Ghafour and Jube Shiver Jr.,LOS ANGELES TIMES

KABUL, Afghanistan - A truck bomb ripped through the headquarters of a U.S. security company in the Afghan capital yesterday, killing at least seven people, including two Americans, in the first major attack in the city in more than a year.

The blast, which injured dozens, targeted the offices of DynCorp Inc., a security and information technology company based in Reston, Va., that provides bodyguards for President Hamid Karzai. The attack comes less than six weeks before Afghanistan holds its first presidential election.

Remnants of the former Taliban regime have vowed to disrupt the balloting and have been staging increasingly frequent attacks on U.S. forces, election workers and potential voters. Taliban spokesman Abdul Latif Hakimi claimed responsibility for Sunday's blast and said it was detonated by a Taliban fighter using remote control.

"A few minutes ago he phoned our chief ... to say that he finished his mission and is alive," he told Reuters news agency.

The explosion in the affluent Shar-e-Now area, home to a number of international charities and embassies, blew out the windows of neighboring houses. It ignited a fire that engulfed DynCorp's residential compound and police training facility. Witnesses said the explosion created a crater just outside DynCorp's front door and left the streets covered with shards of glass and droplets of blood.

"I woke up and I was bleeding from my sides," said Asif Asas, 25, an employee of a nearby hotel, pointing to a bandage covering injuries from glass that pierced his stomach. "Then I saw a huge fire. I kept my head down, because I was scared of another explosion. When I went outside there were lots of people running and screaming, trying to get to the hospital."

The bombing, which occurred about 6 p.m., came a day after an explosion at a school in southeastern Afghanistan killed 10 people, nine of them children, and injured at least 14 others.

A U.S. military spokesman, Army Maj. Scott Nelson, said one Afghan national had been detained in connection with the Kabul bombing.

The names of the victims were not immediately released. They included two Americans who may have been employees of DynCorp, three Nepalese Gurkha security guards and two Afghans, including a child, a spokesman for Karzai said.

DynCorp has provided bodyguards for Karzai since November 2002 under a contract with the U.S. State Department's Diplomatic Security Service. In April last year, the company won a separate State Department contract to train the Afghan police force.

A spokesman for DynCorp's parent company - El Segundo, Calif.-based Computer Sciences Corp. - said yesterday that DynCorp was trying to piece together information about the bombing and was unable to provide any additional details.

DynCorp's staff in Afghanistan included Americans and foreign nationals, the spokesman said, but he did not know how many employees worked at the Kabul facility.

Nearly three years after U.S.-led forces invaded Afghanistan in a quest to find Osama bin Laden and bring down the Taliban regime that had given him haven, the country is struggling to build a strong central government and armed forces that can provide security.

Rocket attacks, roadside bombs and gun battles remain common, particularly in the country's south and east, where the Taliban drew its strongest support and still retains some backing. In the north and west, militias loyal to regional warlords continue to clash over disputes involving land, narcotics and other issues.

Hundreds of people, including militants, Afghan soldiers, aid workers and election workers have been killed in violence the past year.

About 18,000 U.S. troops, along with soldiers from the new Afghan national army, are trying to rout insurgents in the country's south and southeast.

But Kabul, which is patrolled by a NATO-led peacekeeping force of 6,400, has been relatively safe.

The last serious incident in the capital was in June 2003, when a suicide bomber killed four German soldiers in the peacekeeping force.

The DynCorp compound is in a busy area that includes both residential and office compounds. A number of guesthouses and restaurants catering to the large expatriate community have opened in the neighborhood in the past year.

Karzai said he was "deeply disturbed" by the explosion but vowed it would not deter reconstruction efforts or disrupt the Oct. 9 presidential election, in which he is considered the front-runner among 18 candidates.

Kabul had been on a high state of alert all day yesterday after security agencies warned foreign aid groups and other expatriate organizations of the possibility of a terrorist attack within 48 hours.

An e-mail to United Nations staff listed 15 possible kinds of attacks and told employees to be alert for any suspicious activity, such as lone men muttering prayers or even disabled people wandering the streets begging for money - a common sight in Kabul.

On Tuesday, 530 kilograms of explosives and detonating devices were found on the outskirts of the city, and police arrested two militants.

Meanwhile, in Paktia province, authorities were investigating the blast at the school that killed 10 people.

"There were four children, five teenagers and one adult killed," said Air Force Master Sgt. Ann Bennett, a U.S. military spokeswoman. An injured 8-year-old boy was being treated at a U.S. military base, she said. Lutfullah Mashal, a spokesman for the Interior Ministry, said the children were staying overnight at the school, which had a dormitory.

The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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