KABUL, Afghanistan - Insurgents carrying rockets and grenades launched a brazen pre-dawn attack on a giant U.S.-run base north of Afghanistan's capital on Wednesday, leaving at least 10 guerrillas dead and 7 foreign troops wounded.
The attack on Bagram air base, about an hour's drive north of Kabul, continued into daylight with sporadic fire of rockets and small arms outside. One rocket landed inside the base, causing minor damage, but no insurgents managed to get inside Bagram, according to NATO.
Helicopter gunships hovered above Bagram, the main base for the U.S.-led troops in Afghanistan with the largest airfield in the country. It was used by the former Soviet Union during its invasion of the country in the 1980s.
The assault started when security personnel noticed one of the attackers wearing a suicide vest in a car outside the base, NBC News Correspondent Tom Aspell in Kabul reported.
"It looks like (the attackers) were trying to crash in through one of the main gates," he said.
Afghan troops killed seven of the estimated 20 militants, Aspell said, and the assault was over by midday.
The Bagram attack came one day after a suicide bomber struck a U.S. convoy in Kabul, killing 18 people. The Kabul dead included five American troops and a Canadian.
The back-to-back strikes appeared part of a Taliban offensive that the insurgents announced earlier this month — even as the U.S. and its partners prepare for a major operation to restore order in the turbulent south. The insurgent attacks against both the capital and a major American military installation show the militants are prepared to strike at the heart of the U.S.-led mission.
At least 10 insurgents were killed in the attack, which started at about 3 a.m. with rockets, small arms and grenades fired into the base, said Maj. Virginia McCabe, a spokeswoman for U.S. forces at Bagram. Seven U.S. service members have been wounded, she said.
The Taliban claimed responsibility for the Bagram strike. Taliban spokesman Zabiullah Mujahid said 20 suicide attackers carried out the attack.
An Afghan provincial police commander, Gen. Abdul Rahman Sayedkhail, said the attack began when U.S. guards spotted would-be attackers in a car just outside the base. The Americans opened fire, triggering a gunbattle in which at least one militant triggered his suicide vest. Running gunbattles broke out as U.S. troops hunted down the other attackers.
In February 2007, a suicide bombing killed more than 20 people at a Bagram security gate while Vice President Dick Cheney was inside. Cheney was unhurt but the Taliban said he was the target.
Deadly day for U.S.
The Bagram assault followed the deadliest day of the year for U.S. forces in Afghanistan with seven Americans dead — including two who died in separate attacks in the south. The dead in the Kabul attack included Canadian Col. Geoff Parker, 42, the highest-ranking member of the Canadian Forces to die in Afghanistan since the Canadian mission began in 2002, the country's military said.
Twelve Afghan civilians also died in the Monday blast — many of them on a public bus in rush-hour traffic along a major thoroughfare that runs by the ruins of a one-time royal palace and government ministries. At least 47 people were wounded, the Interior Ministry said.
The Taliban claimed responsibility for the Kabul blast, the first major attack in the Afghan capital since February, telling The Associated Press in a telephone call that the bomber was a man from the capital and that the vehicle was packed with 1,650 pounds of explosives.
Afghan President Hamid Karzai joined the U.S. and NATO in condemning the attack, which he said killed women and children.
‘Bodies were everywhere’
The explosion, which thundered across the capital, happened about 8 a.m. as streets were packed with cars, buses and trucks. The bomb ripped apart vehicles and hurled body parts along the street. U.S. and Afghan forces blocked off the area as emergency workers loaded the wounded into ambulances.
"I saw one person lying on the ground with no head," said Mirza Mohammad, who was on his way to work when the blast took place. Police officer Wahidullah, who goes by one name, said he saw the body of a woman in a pale blue burqa smashed up against the window of the bus.
"Dead bodies were everywhere," Wahidullah said.
U.S. forces spokesman Col. Wayne Shanks said five American service members were killed in the Kabul blast. That plus the two deaths in the south brought the number of U.S. troops killed in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Uzbekistan since the war began in 2001 to at least 994, according to an Associated Press count.
The Kabul attack was the heaviest loss of life for NATO in a single attack in the capital since Sept. 17, when a suicide car bomber killed six Italian soldiers. For U.S. forces, it was the bloodiest day since Oct. 27, when nine Americans died in separate attacks in central and southern Afghanistan.
Earlier this month, the Taliban announced a new offensive — "Operation Al-Fatah" or "Victory" — which would target NATO forces, foreign diplomats, contractors and Afghan government officials.
The announcement was made on the eve of Karzai's visit to Washington and comes as U.S., NATO and Afghan forces are gearing up for a major operation to secure Kandahar, the biggest city in the south and the former Taliban headquarters before they were ousted from power in the 2001 U.S.-led invasion. U.S. officials believe control of Kandahar is the key to stabilizing the Taliban' southern heartland.
Kabul has been abuzz for weeks with rumors of imminent Taliban attacks against Afghan government and international targets. The last major assault in the city occurred on Feb. 26 when suicide attackers struck at two residential hotels, killing six Indians and 10 Afghans.
Afghan authorities blamed the February attack on Lashkar-e-Taiba, the Pakistan-based militant group that India blames for the 2008 Mumbai terrorist attacks that killed 166 people.
On April 8, Afghan police announced they had arrested five would-be suicide bombers on their way to carry out a major attack in the city. Eleven days later, the Afghan intelligence service said nine members of a terrorist cell had been arrested — presumably from the support network that was to have helped the five others carry out their attacks.
The bombing Tuesday suggests the Taliban have reconstituted their underground cells, presumably from within the city's large Pashtun community which forms the bulk of the insurgent force.
Also Tuesday, Afghan and NATO aircraft continued the search for an Afghan commercial airliner which disappeared Monday on a flight from Kunduz to Kabul with 44 people on board, including three British citizens and an American. Air traffic controllers lost track of the Antonov-24, operated by Pamir Airways, when it was about 55 miles north of Kabul.