Truck Bombing Kills at Least 7 at U.S. Firm in Afghan Capital

Special to The Times

A truck bomb ripped through the headquarters of a U.S. security firm in the Afghan capital Sunday, killing at least seven people, including two Americans, in the first major attack in the city in more than a year.

The blast, which injured dozens, targeted the offices of DynCorp Inc., a security and information technology company based in Reston, Va., that provides bodyguards for President Hamid Karzai. The attack comes less than six weeks before Afghanistan is scheduled to hold its first direct presidential election.

Remnants of the former Taliban regime have promised to disrupt the balloting and have been staging increasingly frequent attacks on U.S. forces, election workers and potential voters. Taliban spokesman Abdul Latif Hakimi claimed responsibility for Sunday's blast and said it was detonated by a Taliban fighter using a remote control.

"A few minutes ago he phoned our chief ... to say that he finished his mission and is alive," he told Reuters news agency.

The explosion in the affluent Shar-i-Naw area, home to a number of international charities and embassies, blew out the windows of neighboring houses. It ignited a fire that engulfed DynCorp's residential compound and police training facility. Witnesses said the explosion created a crater outside DynCorp's front door and left the streets covered with shards of glass and droplets of blood.

"I woke up and I was bleeding from my sides," said Asif Asas, 25, an employee of a nearby hotel, pointing to a bandage covering injuries from glass that pierced his stomach. "Then I saw a huge fire. I kept my head down, because I was scared of another explosion. When I went outside there were lots of people running and screaming, trying to get to the hospital."

The bombing, which occurred shortly before 6 p.m., came a day after an explosion at a school in southeastern Afghanistan killed 10 people, nine of them children, and injured at least 14 others.

A U.S. military spokesman, Army Maj. Scott Nelson, said that one Afghan national had been detained in connection with the Kabul bombing.

The names of the dead were not immediately released. They were two Americans who may have been employees of DynCorp, three Nepalese Gurkha security guards and two Afghans, including a child, a spokesman for Karzai said.

DynCorp has provided bodyguards for Karzai since November 2002 under a contract with the U.S. State Department's Diplomatic Security Service. In April 2003, the company won a separate State Department contract to train the Afghan police force.

A spokesman for DynCorp's parent company -- El Segundo-based Computer Sciences Corp. -- said Sunday that DynCorp was trying to piece together information about the bombing and was unable to provide any additional details.

DynCorp's staff in Afghanistan included Americans and foreign nationals, the spokesman said, but he did not know how many employees worked at the Kabul facility.

Nearly three years after U.S.-led forces invaded Afghanistan in a quest to find Al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden and bring down the Taliban regime that had given him haven, the country is struggling to build a strong central government and armed forces that can provide security.

Rocket attacks, roadside bombs and gun battles remain common, particularly in the country's south and east, where the Taliban drew its strongest support and still retains some backing. In the north and west, militias loyal to regional warlords continue to clash over disputes involving land, narcotics and other issues.

Hundreds of people, including militants, Afghan soldiers, aid workers and election workers have been killed in violence in the last year.

About 18,000 U.S. troops, along with soldiers from the new Afghan army, are trying to rout insurgents in the country's south and southeast. But Kabul, which is patrolled by a North Atlantic Treaty Organization-led peacekeeping force of 6,400, has been relatively safe.

The last serious incident in the capital was in June 2003, when a suicide bomber killed four German soldiers in the peacekeeping force.

The DynCorp compound is in a busy area that includes residential and office compounds. A number of guesthouses and restaurants catering to the large expatriate community have opened in the neighborhood in the last year.

Nick Downie, project coordinator for the Afghan NGO Security Organization, a nonprofit agency that provides security advice to charities, said the bomb appeared to have contained between 175 and 220 pounds of explosives.

The vehicle used in the attack managed to get past heavy security, including Nepalese Gurkha security officers posted along the street, he said.

Ahmad, who goes by only one name, was inside the carpet store where he works when the bomb went off only yards away. "The people were being taken to the hospital by taxis. There was so much smoke, I couldn't see anything," the 25-year-old said from his bed at the Ali Abad hospital, where he was recovering from shrapnel wounds to his head, arms and legs.

Karzai said he was "deeply disturbed" by the explosion but promised that it would not deter reconstruction efforts or disrupt the Oct. 9 presidential election, for which he is considered the front-runner among 18 candidates. About 20,000 of the Afghan police troops DynCorp is training will help protect polling centers.

"As the people of Afghanistan move toward elections, the enemies of Afghanistan will expedite their efforts to harm the election process and threaten the people's security and prosperity," Karzai said in a statement. "However, Afghanistan will continue relentlessly on the path that the people of this country have chosen: the path of peace, prosperity and reconstruction."

U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad condemned the attack and expressed his sympathy to the families of the victims.

"This cowardly attack will not deter U.S. participation in the ongoing effort to help Afghanistan stand on its own feet," he said in a statement. "The United States is committed to Afghanistan's success -- the training of police and the army will continue to go forward."

Kabul had been on a high state of alert Sunday after security agencies warned foreign aid groups and other expatriate organizations of the possibility of a terrorist attack within 48 hours.

An e-mail to the United Nations staff listed 15 possible kinds of attacks and told employees to be alert for any suspicious activity, such as lone men muttering prayers or even disabled people wandering the streets begging for money -- a common sight in Kabul.

On Tuesday, nearly 1,200 pounds of explosives and detonating devices were found on the outskirts of the city, and police arrested two militants.

Meanwhile, in Paktia province, authorities were investigating the blast at the school that killed 10 people.

"There were four children, five teenagers and one adult killed," said Air Force Master Sgt. Ann Bennett, a U.S. military spokeswoman. An injured 8-year-old boy was being treated at a U.S. military base, she said. Lutfullah Mashal, an Interior Ministry spokesman, said the children had been staying overnight at the school, which has a dormitory.

Reuters reported that the premises were also used by a nongovernmental organization for teaching Afghan women. No one has claimed responsibility for the blast.

Paktia has frequently been the site of clashes between Taliban fighters and U.S. forces.

Times special correspondent Ghafour reported from Kabul and Times staff writer Shiver reported from Washington.

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