KABUL — At least 15 people, including six U.S. military advisers, died Thursday in a suicide attack in Kabul that targeted coalition vehicles, officials said. The Islamist group Hezb-e-Islami claimed responsibility, saying it marked the beginning of a new military campaign against the Americans.
The explosion, heard throughout the city around 7:30 a.m., targeted a convoy of the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force, a spokesman said. A NATO statement said two servicemembers and four ISAF contracted civilians were killed. Cmdr. Bill Speaks, a spokesman for the U.S. defense secretary, confirmed to The Associated Press that the two killed were U.S. soldiers. The four contractors were Americans working for DynCorp International, The AP reported. The news agency quoted a Health Ministry spokesman as saying nine Afghan civilians also were killed.
According to local media reports, among the dead were women and children.
Thursday’s bombing showed once again that the capital remains vulnerable to attack. While it was the first claimed by Hezb-e-Islami since a car bombing in September that killed 12 people, including eight foreign workers, the Taliban have claimed responsibility for a series of other attacks in the capital over the past year.
In March, a suicide bomber detonated an explosives-laden vest outside the Afghan Defense Ministry, killing at least 10 people. That attack occurred while Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel was visiting Kabul. A nine-hour siege in January left at least seven people dead, and in December, a truck bomb at the compound of a U.S. construction contractor in Kabul killed at least two people. Another September attack killed six people, including several children, and in August, a bomb that might have been aimed at government workers and soldiers instead ripped through a minibus full of commuters on the outskirts of Kabul, killing at least nine.
ISAF commander Gen. Joseph Dunford condemned Thursday’s attack and offered condolences to victims.
“While today’s attack shows the insurgents remain dangerous,” he was quoted as saying in an ISAF news release, “they are not a threat to the Afghan Government and its forces. In the end, today’s tragedy shows that the insurgents can offer no positive vision for the future.”
A spokesman for Hezb-e-Islami, a group that has existed in various forms since Islamic militants were at war with the Soviet Union, said the group will use violent tactics against military targets to force the U.S. out.
“Hezb-e-Islami established a new administration to increase such targeted attacks with suicide bombers on specific targets and carry out these attacks on a regular basis,” the spokesman, Haroon Zarghoon, said. Zarghoon said the offensive is necessary because Hezb-e-Islami concluded the Americans intended to keep forces in Afghanistan for the foreseeable future.
Hezb-e-Islami is a distinct group from the Taliban, and the two have been enemies in the past. In recent years, analysts say, Hezb-e-Islami has had to compete for the government’s attention as President Hamid Karzai focuses on opening negotiations with the Taliban.
The commander of Hezb-e-Islami, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, announced last month that the group would participate in the upcoming presidential election — a departure from earlier pronouncements that the group would join the political process only if the NATO coalition withdrew from Afghanistan, according to a paper by Borhan Osman with the Afghanistan Analysts Network.
But Hekmatyar said Hezb-e-Islami would continue to use violence as long as foreign forces remained.
“Hezb-e Islami will continue its jehad in the battle field on one side, while it will badly defeat the enemy in the political field on the other,” he wrote in a statement released late last month. “The upcoming government will decide about full withdrawal of the foreign forces. This will pave the way for us to obtain the overwhelming majority in the next parliament.”
Thursday’s bombing struck the Shah Shaheed neighborhood, which does not have a large foreign presence but is sometimes traversed by coalition convoys. The area is mostly filled with car mechanics’ shops and civilian warehouses.
Abdul Wali, who works at a shipping company located a few hundred feet from the explosion, said he felt the blast as he was carrying goods. Along with the other workers, he dropped the load and took shelter inside.
When he emerged, he said he saw a destroyed SUV. Such large vehicles stand out in a city filled with medium-size sedans, and are nearly always used by foreigners.
Zubair Babakarkhail contributed to this report.