BAGRAM, Afghanistan — A suicide bomber attacked the entrance to the main U.S. military base in Afghanistan on Tuesday during a visit by U.S. Vice-President Dick Cheney, killing up to 23 people and wounding 20 more. The Taliban claimed responsibility and said Cheney was the target.
Cheney told reporters he heard “a loud boom” and that the Secret Service informed him of the attack and that officials moved him to a bomb shelter on Bagram.
“As the situation settled down and they had a better sense of what was going on, I went back to my room,” Cheney said.
Asked if the Taliban were trying to send a message with the attack, Cheney said that fighters “clearly try to find ways to question the authority of the central government.”
“Striking at the Bagram (base) with a suicide bomber, I suppose, is one way to do that,” he said. “It shouldn’t affect our behaviour.”
The vice-president met with President Hamid Karzai in the capital, Kabul, about two hours after the bombing before leaving the country.
There were conflicting reports on the death toll. Karzai’s office said 23 people were killed, including 20 Afghan workers at the base. Another 20 people were injured, it said.
A statement from NATO’s International Security Assistance Force said initial indications were that three people were killed including a U.S. soldier, an American contractor and a South Korean soldier. U.S. officials indicated that they planned to update that death toll but wouldn’t immediately say what it was.
Associated Press reporters at the scene saw the bodies of at least 12 people carried in black body bags and wooden coffins from the base entrance into a market area where hundreds of Afghans had gathered to mourn.
Friends and relatives cried and moaned as they carried or drove the bodies away from the base. Two men came to the base entrance crying and wringing their hands, one of them screaming, “My brother!”
One U.S. officer, Maj. 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.”
But a purported Taliban spokesman, Qari Yousef Ahmadi, said Cheney was the target of the attack, which Ahmadi said was carried out by an Afghan by the name of Mullah Abdul Rahim from Logar province.
“We knew that Dick Cheney would be staying inside the base,” Ahmadi told The AP by telephone from an undisclosed location. “The attacker was trying to reach Cheney.”
But Mitchell said that was a “far-fetched allegation,” saying Cheney stayed at the base overnight only because bad weather had prevented him flying to Kabul to meet with Karzai on Monday.
“The vice president wasn’t even supposed to be here overnight, so this would have been a surprise to everybody,” he said.
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 U.S. 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.
But such an attack, the closest militants have got to a top U.S. leader visiting Afghanistan, will likely have propaganda value for the resurgent Taliban movement.
It was not the first attack apparently aimed at a senior U.S. official here. In January last year, an insurgent blew himself up in Uruzgan province during a supposedly secret visit by the U.S. 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 transport association that hauls goods for the U.S. 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 metres from the Bagram base. Ajmall, who goes by one name, said those wounded in the blast were taken inside the U.S. base for treatment.
South Korea’s Defence Ministry said one of its troops stationed in Bagram, Sgt. Yoon Jang-ho, 27, was killed in the explosion. South Korea has about 200 engineers and medics in Bagram.
Cheney later flew by plane to Kabul, 50 kilometres south of Bagram, to meet Karzai. Cheney was met by armed guards with guns drawn on the tarmac and was rushed by ground convoy to the presidential palace, where he and Karzai walked a long receiving line and past oriental rugs laid out on the wet, stone pavement.
Cheney and Karzai were expected to discuss the surge in violence in Afghanistan. Five years after their fundamentalist government was toppled in a U.S.-led invasion, Taliban-led rebels have stepped up attacks and Afghan, U.S. and NATO forces are bracing for a fresh wave of violence in the spring.