Kabul, Afghanistan – A suicide bomber driving a vehicle with more than a half ton of explosives hit a NATO convoy on a busy Kabul road early Tuesday morning, killing 18 people, including at least five American fighters and a dozen Afghan civilians, according to American and Afghan officials.
The early morning blast, which could be heard miles away, ravaged a crowded public bus, sent armored SUVs skyward, and reminded Kabul residents that the Afghan capital isn’t isolated from the country’s battle zones.
Within hours, the Taliban claimed credit for the attack, which took place less than two hours before Afghan President Hamid Karzai held a news conference in the capital to trumpet the successes of his recent trip to the United States.
“The blast was so powerful you couldn’t find the vehicle,” said one police investigator who declined to give his name as he rushed from the scene.
Afghan officials said that 12 civilians had been killed and about four-dozen others injured in the blast. NATO said that six service members, including five Americans, had been killed by the blast.
The attack hit an area south of the city center that includes an Afghan army training center, the Afghan parliament, and the eerie shell of King Amanullah Khan’s palace that has become a longstanding symbol of the country’s decades of debilitating war.
The area is also home to the U.S. military’s counter-insurgency academy, a school designed to further the military doctrine that focuses on protecting civilians instead of killing insurgents.
Investigators said the bomb probably weighed more than 1,200 pounds and left a roadside crater about nine feet wide and three feet deep.
Tuesday’s early morning attack comes in the wake of a nationwide sweep in which the Afghan government said it had arrested more than 115 suspects, including suicide bombers planning attacks on the capital.
Two weeks ago, Afghan officials announced the arrest of 16 suspects they said were planning suicide and rocket attacks on Kabul.
Witnesses said the car bomb hit the busy section of road as the NATO convoy was navigating down the busy street just after 8 a.m. local time.
“One of the vehicles was thrown from one side of the road to the other,” said Bashir Ahmad, a 22-year-old Afghan who runs a small fuel shop across the road from the blast site.
At the scene, US soldiers covered up one victim with a camouflage blanket until they could move the body that lay outside a ravaged Suburban that was apparently part of the NATO convoy.
An Afghan public bus, its windows shattered, stood empty a few feet from the bomb crater. Shrapnel was thrown hundreds of yards and at least 10 vehicles were destroyed by the blast. Blood seeped into the dirt median near a yellow taxi thrown onto its side by the blast.
Hours later, Karzai condemned the attack that came as the Afghan president was preparing to speak to the media about his recent meetings with President Barack Obama in Washington. The visit was designed to repair the political rifts that had arisen between Karzai and Obama at a critical juncture for both leaders.
Karzai is preparing to host a nationwide assembly to debate whether to talk to the Taliban and how to peacefully end the war. The Obama administration is still sending more US troops to Afghanistan as the international military coalition prepares for a critical summer. American officials are looking to push the Taliban on defense and weaken their position at the negotiating table.
Tuesday’s blast was another sign that Afghan insurgents are able to strike Kabul and keep the capital’s residents in a state of anxiety. It was the worst attack in the capital since late February when insurgents staged a coordinated assault in central Kabul. Attackers using a car bomb and automatic weapons killed 16 people, including an Italian diplomat, French filmmaker and six Indians working in Afghanistan. Afghan investigators have blamed that attack on Islamist militants thought to be helping Pakistan challenge India’s political influence in the region.
(Special correspondent Hashim Shukoor contributed to this report from Kabul)