A suicide bomber yesterday killed 17 people, including five US soldiers and eight British and American civilian contractors, when he drove a minibus packed with explosives into the side of a military bus in Kabul in one of the deadliest attacks inside the city since the conflict began.
The explosion hurled the heavily armoured bus into the air, engulfing it in a fireball as it travelled in a convoy of armoured vehicles towards a nearby Nato base in the southwest of the Afghan capital.
Thick black smoke poured from the side of the bus as it lay on its side opposite Kabul’s American University and Darulaman palace, the bombed-out seat of Afghanistan’s former kings and presidents.
The victims included five American soldiers, a Canadian soldier, five American civilian contractors, two British contractors, an Afghan policeman and three Afghan civilians. Two children were among the wounded.
Ambulances and fire engines sped to the scene as Nato soldiers treated some of the casualties. The twisted frame of a motorcycle lay among the charred metal fragments that littered the road.
“There was a huge explosion and I turned to see a massive cloud of smoke rising into the air,” said Mokhtar Aria, who works as a mechanic. “The bus was on fire. I watched them pulling the bodies from it.”
Two Nato helicopters landed to evacuate the dead and wounded to a military hospital near Kabul. Later, witnesses saw US soldiers carry three black body bags from the bus before lifting out another badly charred body from the burnt-out wreckage.
Another witness said he saw the badly charred bodies of US soldiers inside the military bus, known as a Rhino because of its heavy armour. In accordance with usual practice, none of the military victims has been named.
Throughout yesterday, French and American bomb disposal units conducted a forensic examination of the area while Afghan intelligence officials scoured the site for evidence. A military guard dog was also killed in the blast.
As Nato cordoned off the surrounding streets, the wounded were rushed to Kabul’s Estiqlal hospital. Among them was Ali Ahmad, 9, who was yesterday recovering.
The Taliban claimed responsibility for the attack, although in the past the Haqqani network, the most lethal insurgent force in Afghanistan, has been blamed for similar high-profile attacks in the capital.
A Taliban spokesman claimed that a suicide bomber called Abdul Rahman drove a Toyota Land Cruiser laden with 1,500lbs of explosives into the bus.
“At this time we are working on the assumption that this was a Haqqani attack. But the investigation is still going on so it’s too early to tell,” said an official from Afghanistan’s intelligence agency, the National Directorate of Security.
The insurgents’ consistent ability to penetrate the Afghan capital will trouble Nato commanders as they hand over large chunks of the country to Afghan security forces, who could be responsible for security in as much as half of the country by the end of this year.
Nato ceded control of Kabul to the Afghan army and police four months ago, but since then insurgents have launched a string of blistering attacks on targets inside the capital.
In June, the Haqqani network mounted a commando-style assault on the city’s InterContinental hotel, triggering a five-hour gun battle in which 12 people died. In August, gunmen attacked the British Council before attempting to break into a safe room to kill two members of staff, and last month squads of suicide bombers and gunmen launched a string of simultaneous attacks on Nato bases, the US embassy and police and intelligence installations inside the city.
American officials later blamed the Haqqani network for the embassy attack. Some, including Admiral Mike Mullen, then chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, even went as far as accusing Pakistan’s intelligence agency, the ISI, of supporting the Haqqanis, inflaming tensions between the two countries.
Last week Hillary Clinton, the US secretary of state, announced that American officials had met representatives of the Haqqani network before the bombing of the US embassy, a meeting that was arranged by the ISI. But the talks amounted to little.
“It was not a negotiation,” Clinton said yesterday. “This was done in part because I think the Pakistanis hope to be able to move the Haqqani network toward some kind of peace negotiation and the answer was an attack on our embassy.”
America has since stepped up operations against the network, which is based in the Pakistani tribal area of North Waziristan, close to the Afghan border. Drone strikes and ground operations have led to the death and capture of a number of Haqqani operatives on both sides of the border, said Nato officials.
On Friday, the Pentagon released an upbeat assessment of Nato’s strategy in Afghanistan, saying that the improvements in security over the past six months have laid the foundations for the withdrawal of foreign forces by the end of 2014. Some officials, though, fear the country will descend into civil war once Nato pulls out the bulk of its troops.
Adding to the violence yesterday, an Afghan soldier shot dead three Australian soldiers and wounded seven more when the rogue solider opened fire on Nato troops at a military base in Kandahar province. A female suicide bomber blew herself up outside an Afghan intelligence office in Kunar province.