Powerful blast kills at least 18 in Kabul

Two U.S. troops killed in attack signaling a Taliban resurgence

September 09, 2006|By Kim Barker | Kim Barker,Chicago Tribune

KABUL, Afghanistan -- A suicide bomber rammed his car into a U.S. military convoy yesterday morning, killing two U.S. soldiers and at least 16 Afghans in the deadliest attack in the country's capital since the fall of the Taliban in late 2001.

One of the most powerful explosions seen in Kabul, it comes amid a sharp escalation of violence in Afghanistan. The resurgent Taliban have taken control of parts of southern Afghanistan, where NATO-led troops are waging daily battles.

The holdouts have been turning to Iraqi-style tactics - including increasing numbers of suicide bombings - to try to derail the government of President Hamid Karzai. A top British general has said that fighting in southern Afghanistan is now more brutal than in Iraq.

U.S. officials scrambled yesterday to portray the blast as an expected outcome of the hard fighting going on in the south of the country. But for ordinary Afghans, it signaled the encroaching threat from extremists, who now seem even to be able to move with impunity in the capital.

"During the last year the Taliban have had a chance to regroup, and there's an attempt to come back and make a statement," said a U.S. diplomat who requested anonymity. "NATO is fighting hard. Our choice is chaos or winning."

NATO defense chiefs meeting in Warsaw yesterday discussed raising more troops for Afghanistan after NATO's top commander of operations, James Jones, an American general, said Thursday that he would call for 2,000 to 2,500 personnel on top of the roughly 18,500 that NATO has there, as well as more helicopters and transport aircraft.

NATO took over security control from the U.S.-led coalition in the south in August; soon, NATO will assume security control of the entire country.

New attacks show that Taliban-led insurgents have become more and more confident. Even a year ago, suicide attacks were rare in Afghanistan. Now they are common, even in the capital, Kabul, which once was considered relatively safe.

On Monday, a suicide bomber attacked a British-led NATO convoy in Kabul, killing one British soldier and four Afghans.

But that attack was on a road near the outskirts of the city. The attack yesterday was in the center of the capital.

It happened about 10:30 a.m. in the heart of Kabul, near the U.S. Embassy. It destroyed a U.S. Humvee, turning it into a twisted hunk of black metal. Army uniforms and engine parts hung from trees; pieces of flesh littered the streets. An Army hat rested on the road, a few feet from Muslim prayer caps. Soldiers picked up pieces of uniforms, an Army boot, and piled them together. They tried to find pieces of the Humvee.

"We saw dust, smoke, dead bodies, shrapnel everywhere," said Alam Uddin, 28, a shopkeeper near the blast, which also blew out windows in buildings and cars, and hurled shrapnel more than 150 yards. "What should I tell you? These are criminals. These are cowards. These are not human beings."

Local residents said the bomb would have been far more deadly if it had come on a weekday; Friday is a holiday in the Muslim world, and far fewer people are on the street. The Ministry of Health is almost next door to the U.S. Embassy, and on a weekday hundreds of workers would have been coming and going.

"It's a shocking thing, there's no doubt about that, especially in terms of casualties," said Jawed Ludin, the president's chief of staff.

The attack was one of four across South Asia during the day that took civilian lives. The others were in India, where 31 people were killed outside a mosque; Pakistan, where five were killed; and Sri Lanka, where two were killed.

The Taliban claimed responsibility for the blast in Kabul. Yesterday afternoon, Mohammed Hanif, the alleged spokesman for the Taliban in the Kabul area, said the suicide attacker was from eastern Nangarhar province. He apologized for killing civilians and blamed international troops for killing many more civilians than the Taliban.

"We are sorry about the loss," Hanif said. "We are trying our best to avoid civilian casualty. This is war."

Karzai, preparing for a trip to the United States, condemned the attack. "The enemies of Afghanistan are trying to hinder Afghanistan's progress towards peace and democracy by disrupting the peaceful life of our people," he said. "Today's heinous act of terrorism is against the values of Islam and humanity."

The bombing happened the day before a major Afghan holiday honoring the fifth anniversary of the death of Ahmad Shah Masoud, a famous anti-Taliban commander killed two days before the Sept. 11 attacks. It also happened close to the Masoud traffic circle, near the heavily guarded U.S. Embassy, which is blocked off from traffic. Visitors to the embassy often walk to the circle to meet drivers.

Najibullah Faizi, 25, said he was standing about 50 yards from the U.S. military convoy when it was attacked. He said he watched as a sedan sped around another car to slam into the U.S. Humvee.

After the bomb went off, Faizi said, he fell to the ground. He said American soldiers fired shots at a nearby car.

A neighbor, Mohammad Haidar Nangarhari, said his four children were eating inside their apartment when the bomb exploded. His windows were blown out, like all the windows in the five-story apartment complex.

"My four children were hurt," he said, holding out a right hand smeared with blood.

One of his neighbors in the Soviet-era complex, a 60-year-old woman named Amena, had just taken her granddaughter to a small park outside her apartment. Her granddaughter survived. Amena died.

"She just wanted to get some fresh air," said her son, Farid Wahidi, 30. "The shrapnel hit her in the heart."

Kim Barker writes for the Chicago Tribune. Wire reports contributed to this article.

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