Insurgents launched a brazen pre-dawn assault Wednesday against the giant U.S.-run Bagram Air Field, killing an American contractor and wounding nine service members in the second Taliban strike at NATO forces in and around the capital in as many days.
At least 10 insurgents were killed as Taliban suicide bombers attempted to breach the defenses of the base north of Kabul, while others fired rockets and grenades inside, according to a statement issued by U.S. forces.
The attack started around 3 a.m. Blasts and gunfire only subsided around midday, said Master Sgt. Tom Clementson, a spokesman for U.S. forces. No insurgents managed to get into the base and none were able to detonate their suicide vests, the statement said.
The Bagram attack came a day after a suicide bomber struck a U.S. convoy in Kabul, killing 18 people. The dead included five American troops and a Canadian, making it the deadliest attack on NATO in the Afghan capital in eight months.
The back-to-back attacks show the militants intent to strike at the heart of the U.S.-led mission, apparently part of an offensive announced by the Taliban earlier this month — even as NATO prepares for a major operation to restore order in the turbulent south.
In the latest violence in the south, a NATO service member died in a bomb attack Wednesday, the military alliance said in a statement. It did not provide further details.
The Taliban claimed responsibility for both the Kabul bombing and the attack at Bagram, 30 miles (50 kilometers) north of Kabul. Taliban spokesman Zabiullah Mujahid said 20 suicide attackers were involved.
An Afghan provincial police commander, Gen. Abdul Rahman Sayedkhail, said the attack began when U.S. guards spotted would-be attackers in a car just outside the Bagram base. The Americans opened fire, triggering a gunbattle in which at least one militant triggered his suicide vest. Running gunbattles broke out as U.S. troops hunted down the other attackers.
Four of the killed insurgents were intended suicide bombers, the U.S. statement said. The base was undamaged except for "minor" damage to one building, it added. Spokesmen had previously said the building was not strategically important.
In February 2007, a suicide bombing killed more than 20 people at a Bagram security gate while Vice President Dick Cheney was inside the base. Cheney was unhurt but the Taliban said he was the target.
Tuesday was the deadliest day of the year for U.S. forces in Afghanistan with seven Americans dead — including two who died in separate attacks in the south. Twelve Afghan civilians also died in Tuesday's blast — many of them on a public bus in rush-hour traffic along a major thoroughfare that runs by the ruins of a one-time royal palace and government ministries.
The attacks follow a Taliban announcement earlier this month of a spring offensive — "Operation Al-Fatah" or "Victory" — which would target NATO forces, foreign diplomats, contractors and Afghan government officials.
The announcement was made on the eve of a visit by President Hamid Karzai to Washington and comes as U.S., NATO and Afghan forces are gearing up for a major operation to secure Kandahar, the biggest city in the south and the former Taliban headquarters before they were ousted from power in the 2001 U.S.-led invasion. U.S. officials believe control of Kandahar is the key to stabilizing the Taliban' southern heartland.
NATO's senior civilian representative in Afghanistan said that Taliban attacks like those in Kabul and in the south have not delayed the Kandahar operation or any of NATO's key goals over the next few months.
"The overall campaign is on track," Mark Sedwill told reporters. He stressed that the Kandahar operation will not be a quick-strike offensive like this past winter's push into the town of Marjah in neighboring Helmand province.
Since the Taliban is not in complete control of Kandahar city and its surrounding villages, the first stage of the mission is meetings with local leaders. Then NATO forces expect to launch a series of operations over weeks or months to establish security, he said.
"Although we will have more difficult days like yesterday, I believe that by the end of this year we will be able to demonstrate that we have the initiative and the momentum is with us," Sedwill said.
Also Wednesday, Afghan and NATO aircraft continued the search for an Afghan commercial airliner which disappeared Monday on a flight from Kunduz to Kabul with 44 people on board, including three British citizens and an American. Air traffic controllers lost track of the Antonov-24, operated by Pamir Airways, when it was about 55 miles (85 kilometers) north of Kabul.
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