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Suicide bomber kills 11 in eastern Afghanistan

A massive car bomb blew up Friday on the outskirts of a city in eastern Afghanistan, killing 11 people and injuring dozens, an attack that authorities said could have been far worse if the suicide bomber had managed to make his way into the more crowded city center.

Meanwhile, in northern Afghanistan, a man in an Afghan army uniform opened fire on a group of German soldiers, killing three and wounding six, according to the NATO force and German news reports.

Instances of Afghan police or soldiers turning weapons on Western mentors are relatively infrequent, but such attacks, when they do take place, cast doubt on whether Afghan security forces will be ready to take the lead in safeguarding the country in three years.

The tempo of violence across Afghanistan has been increasing during the winter, when there has traditionally been a lull in fighting. Although many insurgents retreat across the border into Pakistan during the colder months, a series of suicide attacks has continued this winter in major urban centers.

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Friday’s bombing took place on the edge of Khowst, the capital of the eastern province of the same name, which is the site of a sprawling American-run military base known as Camp Salerno. Khowst was also the location, 14 months ago, of a suicide bombing at a smaller U.S. installation that killed seven CIA employees, the agency’s worst single-day loss in nearly three decades.

The provincial police chief, Gen. Abdul Hakim Ishaqzai, said authorities had been tipped off about a planned bombing and had hunted fruitlessly all night for the would-be attacker.

About 9 a.m., officials said, a suspicious-looking sport-utility-type vehicle blew past a police checkpoint about half a mile from the city center. When police fired what were described as warning shots, the driver detonated his explosives.

“He was trying to get to the center,” Ishaqzai said. “This prevented a much more tragic incident.”

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As it was, dozens were caught up in the powerful blast, which reportedly echoed across the city and sent a cloud of smoke, dust and debris into the air. Many people were shopping or running errands in the few hours remaining before Friday prayers, the main religious event of the Muslim week.

Two police officers at the checkpoint were believed to be among the dead, reminiscent of an attack this week in Kabul, the capital, in which both people killed were guards who stopped the bomber from entering a shopping mall.

The 41 people injured in the Khowst attack, most of them passersby, included women and children, police said.

Eastern Afghanistan, where large numbers of U.S. troops are deployed, is highly vulnerable to infiltration by insurgents based across the border in Pakistan’s tribal areas.

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Khowst is a key operating ground for a Taliban offshoot known as the Haqqani network, which is mainly based across the frontier in the Pakistani tribal area of North Waziristan. The North Atlantic Treaty Organization force says it has captured or killed dozens of command-level figures in the organization inside Afghanistan over the last year. Another such capture had taken place in Khowst on Thursday, Western military officials said.

Other insurgents operate in eastern Afghanistan as well, including the Taliban and the Hezb-i-Islami faction led by Soviet-era warlord Gulbuddin Hekmatyar. The Taliban claimed responsibility for Friday’s bombing, but the claim could not be independently verified.

The attack on German troops took place near a NATO base in the northern province of Baghlan, where insurgents have strongly bolstered their presence during the last year. Western military officials said it had not been definitively established whether the shooter, who was critically injured by return fire from coalition troops, was a member of the Afghan army or an infiltrator who had managed to procure a uniform.

The Afghan war is politically unpopular in Germany, and casualties tend to stir up domestic debate over whether the country should keep combat troops here. German troops in Afghanistan number about 5,000.

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laura.king@latimes.com


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