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Nicholson: Afghan police actions saved lives amid deadly attack

Gen. John Nicholson, commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan, poses in Kabul on Sunday, July 2, 2017, with police officers wounded in a May 31 bombing and their colleagues.

PHILLIP WALTER WELLMAN/STARS AND STRIPES

By PHILLIP WALTER WELLMAN | STARS AND STRIPES Published: July 3, 2017

KABUL, Afghanistan — The top U.S. commander in Afghanistan on Sunday thanked families of Afghan police officers killed or wounded in one of the deadliest terrorist bombings of the country’s 15-year-old war.

“They are our heroes, you are our heroes,” Army Gen. John Nicholson told a crowd of burqa-clad widows, small children and policemen with visible scars at NATO’s Resolute Support headquarters in Kabul.

A truck packed with more than 3,300 pounds of explosives was detonated at an entrance to the capital’s Green Zone on May 31. More than 150 people were killed and more than 400 injured by the blast, for which no group has yet claimed responsibility. Afghanistan’s intelligence agency charged that the Taliban-affiliated Haqqani Network planned the attack.

NATO’s headquarters, the U.S. Embassy and several other foreign missions are located in the heavily fortified Green Zone. The explosion killed seven police officers and wounded a dozen more.

“It is our duty to remember them, to honor them, and to complete the work for which they died and for which you were wounded,” Nicholson said at the officers’ memorial Sunday evening.

Officials say police prevented what could have been an even deadlier attack. Security footage showed officers stopping the truck from passing a checkpoint near the German Embassy. Moments later it exploded.

Hugo Llorens, special charge d’affaires at the U.S. Embassy, also spoke at the event, suggesting the men may have saved many American lives if the perpetrators’ intended target had been the embassy or the adjacent NATO base.

“I offer the heartfelt condolences of the administration of President Donald Trump and the people of the United States in these difficult times,” he said.

Despite reports that the German Embassy — which sits just inside the Green Zone and is visible from a busy public road — was the planned target of the attack, the country’s ambassador to Afghanistan, Walter Hassman, told reporters at the memorial that authorities were “not sure yet about this.”

He said that Germans were aware of a heightened threat and that staff had been moved to safer buildings on the embassy compound. But he said they had no specific knowledge or warning of the explosion that occurred.

“If we had known about this attack, we would have both vacated and evacuated the embassy, and we would have warned the neighborhood,” he said. “We knew that a threat was out there, but we did not know that this attack was going to happen that morning.”

Nearly all personnel at the German Embassy were evacuated after the bombing because of the extensive damage it caused. Hassman said Germany was committed to continuing its work in Afghanistan and that his embassy staff would return as soon as possible.

The May attack underlined the difficulties the Afghan government and its international partners face in stabilizing the country, more than 15 years after a U.S.-led invasion removed the Taliban from power. The security situation has steadily deteriorated since NATO ended combat operations in 2014.

The capital has been especially hard hit, with several high-profile attacks this year alone. Because of the situation, the U.S., which has continued a separate counterterrorism mission, is expected to deploy as many as 5,000 more troops to Afghanistan, adding to the roughly 8,400 current U.S. troops who mainly train and advise Afghans.

wellman.phillip@stripes.com

Twitter: @PhillipWellman

Gen. John Nicholson, commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan, speaks at a ceremony at NATO's Resolute Support Headquarters on Sunday, July 2, 2017, that honored police officers killed and wounded in a terrorist attack in Kabul in May 31 that claimed more than 100 lives. Afghan officials have blamed an extreme wing of the Taliban for the massive explosion.
PHILLIP WALTER WELLMAN/STARS AND STRIPES

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