A suicide bomber killed at least 14 people and wounded about a dozen more outside the main US military base in Afghanistan Tuesday, during a visit by US Vice-President Dick Cheney.
Cheney had been in his room at the US airbase where he had stayed the night unexpectedly after bad weather forced postponement of his trip to the Afghan capital Kabul, about 60 kilometers away.
"At 10 AM I heard a loud boom," Cheney said.
The blast happened at the main entrance to the base at Bagram, north of Kabul. Cheney's spokeswoman said he was fine, and the vice-president later met with President Hamid Karzai in Kabul before leaving the country.
There were conflicting reports on the death toll. Provincial Governor Abdul Jabar Taqwa said 20 people were killed, while NATO said initial reports indicated three fatalities, including a US soldier, a South Korean coalition soldier and a US government contractor whose nationality was not immediately known. NATO said 27 people were also wounded. It was unclear why there was such a large discrepancy in the reports.
Associated Press reporters at the scene said they had seen the bodies of at least 12 people carried in black body bags and wooden coffins from near the base into a market area where hundreds of Afghans had gathered to mourn.
Major William Mitchell said it did not appear the explosion was intended as a threat to the vice-president.
"He wasn't near the site of the explosion," Mitchell said. "He was safely within the base at the time of the explosion."
A purported Taliban spokesman, Qari Yousef Ahmadi, said Cheney was the target of the attack, which Ahmadi said was carried out by an Afghan called Mullah Abdul Rahim from Logar province.
"We knew that Dick Cheney would be staying inside the base," Ahmadi told AP by telephone from an undisclosed location. "The attacker was trying to reach Cheney."
The explosion happened near the first of at least three gated checkpoints vehicles must pass through before gaining access to Bagram.
The sprawling base houses 5,100 US troops and 4,000 other coalition forces and contractors. High security areas within the base are blocked by their own checkpoints.
It was unclear how an attacker could expect to penetrate the base, locate the vice-president and get close to him without detection.
"We maintain a high-level of security here at all times. Our security measures were in place and the killer never had access to the base," said Lieutenant Colonel James E. Bonner, the base operations commander.
It was not the first attack apparently aimed at a top US official in Afghanistan. In January last year a militant blew himself up in Uruzgan province during a supposedly secret visit by the US ambassador, killing 10 Afghans.
Khan Shirin, a private security guard, sobbed near the dead body of his relative, Farvez, a truck driver and the representative of a transport association that hauls goods for the US base. Shirin said many of the people killed were truck drivers waiting to get inside the base.
Ajmall, a shopkeeper, said the "huge" blast shook a small market where he has a stall about 500 meters from the Bagram base. Ajmall, who goes by one name, said those wounded in the blast were taken inside the US base for treatment.
(China Daily via agencies February 28, 2007)