February 28, 2007 12:17:19 am
A suicide bomber attacked the entrance to the main US military base in Afghanistan on Tuesday during a visit by Vice-President Dick Cheney, killing up to 23 people and wounding 20. Cheney was unhurt in the attack, which was claimed by the Taliban and was the closest that militants have come to a top US official visiting Afghanistan. At least one US soldier, an American contractor and a South Korean soldier were among the dead, NATO said.
Cheney said the attackers were trying “to find ways to question the authority of the central government.” A Taliban spokesman said Cheney was the target.
About two hours after the blast, Cheney left on a military flight for Kabul to meet with President Hamid Karzai and other officials, then left Afghanistan. The Vice-President had spent the night at the sprawling Bagram Air Base, ate breakfast with the troops, and met with Major General David Rodriguez, the commander of US troops in Afghanistan.
He was preparing to leave for a meeting with Karzai when the suicide bomber struck about 10 am, sending up a plume of smoke. US military officials declared a “red alert” at the base.
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“I heard a loud boom,” Cheney told reporters. “The Secret Service came in and told me there had been an attack on the main gate.”
He said he was moved “for a brief period of time” to a bomb shelter on the base near his quarters. “As the situation settled down and they had a better sense of what was going on, I went back to my room,” Cheney added.
Asked if the Taliban were trying to send a message with the attack, Cheney said: “I think they clearly try to find ways to question the authority of the central government.”
“Striking at Bagram with a suicide bomber, I suppose, is one way to do that,” he said. “But it shouldn’t affect our behavior at all.”
Major William Mitchell said it did not appear the explosion was intended as a threat to Cheney. “He wasn’t near the site of the explosion,” Mitchell said. “He was safely within the base at the time of the explosion.”
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.
NATO’s International Security Assistance Force said initial reports were that three people were killed, including a US soldier, an American contractor and a South Korean soldier. US officials indicated they planned to update that d
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, of 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.”
White House deputy press secretary Dana Perino said she could not confirm that the Taliban was behind the attack. She said President Bush got an update Tuesday morning about the attack, but had not yet spoken to Cheney about it.
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