A suicide car bomber struck early yesterday outside the main NATO base in southern Afghanistan, killing two civilians and wounding 14 other people, as US Marines pressed a major anti-Taliban offensive in a neighboring province.
The bomber blew himself up near the gates of Kandahar Airfield, said General Sher Mohammad Zazai, the top military commander for southern Afghanistan.
Those wounded included 12 civilians and two Afghan soldiers, Zazai said. Initially police said four soldiers were wounded.
The attack came as thousands of US Marines in neighboring Helmand Province mounted a major offensive against the Taliban. Over the weekend, insurgent attacks killed three British soldiers in the province, a militant stronghold and hub of the vast Afghan drugs trade.
It wasn’t clear if the British casualties had been involved in the Marine operation. A total of 174 British personnel have died in Afghanistan since 2001, when US-led forces first entered the country to oust the hardline Taliban regime.
The Islamist militia has bounced back and now has effective control of large chunks of the volatile south and east of the country, undermining Afghanistan’s fledgling democracy. Next month, Afghanistan is due to hold its second presidential elections since the Taliban’s ouster.
Admiral Mike Mullen, chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, said the Helmand offensive was “the first significant one” since US President Barack Obama ordered 21,000 additional troops to Afghanistan to try to reverse the militant gains.
“We’ve made some advances early. But I suspect it’s going to be tough for a while,” Mullen told CBS News’ Face the Nation on Sunday.
The admiral described the goal of Marines’ push as not just driving out the Taliban from areas they control, but securing the area to allow the Afghan government to operate.
“We’ve got to move to a point where there’s security ... so that the Afghan people can get goods and services consistently from their government,” Mullen said.
Obama’s administration expects the total number of US forces there to reach 68,000 by year’s end.
That is double the number of troops in Afghanistan last year, but still half as many as are now in Iraq.
In the country’s east, meanwhile, gunmen kidnapped 16 Afghan mine clearers as they traveled between Paktia and Khost provinces on Saturday, Paktia’s police chief Azizullah Wardak said.
While insurgents operate in the area, Wardak could not say who was responsible for the kidnapping. Similar incidents have happened twice before in Paktia but were resolved successfully, he said.
Wardak criticized the demining team — part of the UN’s effort to rid the country of decades of planted land mines — for going into the area without informing the police.
Afghanistan is one of the most heavily mined countries in the world, and the increase in violence amid a thriving Taliban insurgency has slowed clearance work.
Some 50 people are killed and maimed by mines every month.