Bomb within earshot of Cheney kills 23

Updated: 2007-02-28 08:48

AGRAM, Afghanistan - In what the Taliban claimed was an assassination attempt, a suicide bomber attacked the main gate of a US military base Tuesday within earshot of Vice President Dick Cheney. The explosion killed 23 people, including two Americans, and delivered a propaganda blow that undercut the US military and the weak Afghan government it supports.

Relatives carry the dead body of an Afghan man who was killed during a suicide attack at the main US air base of Bagram, north of Kabul, Afghanistan on Tuesday, Feb. 27, 2007. [AP]
The bomber struck about 10 a.m., and US military officials declared a "red alert" at the sprawling Bagram Air Base while Cheney was rushed to a bomb shelter. Cheney, who had been stranded at the base overnight by a snowstorm, met with President Hamid Karzai in the capital before heading back to the United States via the Gulf state of Oman.

"I heard a loud boom," Cheney told reporters aboard Air Force Two en route to Oman. "The Secret Service came in and told me there had been an attack on the main gate."

Many of the victims were said to be Afghan truck drivers waiting to get inside the base. A dozen men - many of them sobbing heavily - left the base holding a stretcher bearing their loved ones wrapped in black body bags. Tears streamed down the face of one man sitting in the passenger seat of an SUV that carried another victim away.

Although the bomber did not get closer than roughly a mile to the vice president, the attack highlighted an increasingly precarious security situation posed by the resurgent Taliban. Five years after US-led forces toppled their regime, Taliban-led militants have stepped up attacks. There were 139 suicide bombings last year, a fivefold increase over 2005, and a fresh wave of violence is expected this spring.

The guerrillas, according to NATO officials, have the flexibility to organize an attack quickly and may have been able to plan a bombing at the base while Cheney was there after hearing news reports on Monday that he was delayed by bad weather. The Taliban have attacked in the area north of the capital in the past even though people living in the Bagram area have not been supportive of the guerrillas. Col. Tom Collins, the top spokesman for the NATO force, said the Taliban had a cell in Kabul that could have traveled the 30 miles north to Bagram.

Asked if the Taliban were trying to send a message with the attack, Cheney said: "I think they clearly try to find ways to question the authority of the central government. Striking at Bagram with a suicide bomber, I suppose, is one way to do that. But it shouldn't affect our behavior at all."

Cheney was the highest-ranking US official to stay overnight in either the Afghanistan or Iraq war zones.

President Bush was not awakened to be told about the attack, but received an update early Tuesday morning. White House press secretary Tony Snow said Bush's first reaction was to ask if Cheney was OK.

A message posted on a Web site used by militants said "a mujahid (holy warrior) ... carried out a suicide attack in front of the second gate of the Bagram Air Base. ... The target was Bush's vice president, Dick Cheney."

A purported Taliban spokesman, Qari Yousef Ahmadi, said Cheney was the target of the attack carried out by an Afghan named Mullah Abdul Rahim.

"We knew that Dick Cheney would be staying inside the base," Ahmadi told The Associated Press by telephone from an undisclosed location. "The attacker was trying to reach Cheney."

But it appeared unlikely the bomber would have been able to reach the vice president, who was in a "very safe and secure place" roughly a mile from the blast site, said US spokesman Lt. Col. David Accetta.

The bomber, Accetta said, never tried to get by any US-manned security checkpoints and instead walked into a group of Afghans outside the base and detonated himself.

"To characterize this as a direct attempt on the life of the vice president is absurd," Accetta said.

heney's trip to Afghanistan - on the heels of a four-hour visit Monday to Pakistan - had not been announced in advance. Snow said he did not know whether publicity about Cheney's overnight stay at the base helped invite the attack - after the planned meeting Monday with Karzai was postponed.

Even though reaching the front gate of the US base could have been achieved with relative ease, the idea of getting through US security to attack Cheney was "far-fetched," in the words of Maj. William Mitchell, a US spokesman.

Nevertheless, Seth Jones, an Afghan expert at the RAND Corp. think tank, said the attack was a "stark reminder of the deteriorating security environment" in Afghanistan and was a propaganda boost for the Taliban.

Top World News  
Today's Top News  
Most Commented/Read Stories in 48 Hours