- Special Pages
KABUL: A suicide bomber on a bicycle killed nine people outside the defence ministry in central Kabul yesterday during a visit to the Afghan capital by new US Defence Secretary Chuck Hagel.
The blast occurred near the main entrance gate of the heavily-guarded ministry, and Taliban militants immediately claimed the attack was timed to send a message to Hagel, who arrived in Kabul late on Friday.
One Afghan soldier covered in blood at the scene said he had helped carry five people from the attack site, where several cars were damaged and a wall was left pock-marked.
Hagel, a decorated Vietnam war veteran, was at a US facility less than a mile from the attack when the loud explosion followed by gunfire was heard across Kabul.
“I wasn’t sure what it was,” he told reporters afterwards. “I was in a briefing. We are in a war zone and I have been at war. We should not be surprised when bombs go off.”
Zahir Azimi, spokesman for the Afghan defence ministry, told reporters at the scene that the bomber had arrived on a bicycle and detonated himself 30 metres from the ministry’s gate.
Police said in a statement that nine civilians had died and 13 were injured, including two military personnel.
Taliban spokesman Zabiullah Mujahid said: “This was not a direct attack to target him (Hagel) but we want to send a message that we are always capable of hitting Kabul even when the top US defence official is there.”
Hagel arrived in Kabul as the international military coalition prepares to pull out by the end of next year and leave Afghan security forces to battle the Taliban insurgency that has raged across the south and east of the country.
“We’re seeing a world in great transition, just like the transition under way here in Afghanistan,” he told troops on a brief visit to a base in Jalalabad.
“We see through those challenges and find opportunity to help make a better world.”
Hagel was sworn in 10 days ago as heavy cuts loom for the US military, but he said Americans realised that Afghanistan remained a major conflict zone with US troops fighting against Islamist militants since the September 11, 2011 attacks.
A total of 100,000 NATO-led international troops are deployed in Afghanistan, with all combat forces due to exit by the end of 2014.
Afghan forces are assuming control of security across the country, but there are widespread fears that they will be unable to face down the Taliban and that the country could tip into greater instability.
In another suicide attack yesterday, eight children and a policeman were killed in the eastern city of Khost in a strike that targeted a joint Afghan and international troop patrol.
“A suicide attacker blew up his explosives on a road beside a joint patrol of Afghan police and international forces in the city of Khost,” the provincial governor of Khost said in a statement.
Police said that the officer had died when he grabbed the attacker.