18 killed in Kabul blast near US embassy

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A massive suicide car bomb struck a convoy of US military vehicles in the Afghan capital today, killing at least 18 people, including two American soldiers, and injuring more than 30 others.

The blast, near the US Embassy in Kabul, came just days before the fifth anniversary of the 9/11 attacks as Nato chiefs appealed for member nations to send reinforcements to combat resurgent Taliban militants. A top British general said the fighting in volatile southern Afghanistan was now more ferocious than in Iraq.

Today's bombing blew pieces of an American Humvee and US uniforms into trees, which were set alight by the explosion. The force of the car bomb shattered windows throughout the downtown area. A plume of brown smoke spiraled hundreds of meters nto the sky.

Two American soldiers in the vehicle were killed and two wounded, said US military spokeswoman Lt. Tamara Lawrence. At least eight Afghan civilians were killed and 15 wounded, said Interior Ministry spokesman Yousef Stanezai. The attacker also died.

The bombing, one of the biggest in Kabul in recent years, came three days ahead of the fifth anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks on the United States and as Afghan started commemorating the Sept. 9, 2001, assassination of revered anti-Taliban mujahedeen commander Ahmad Shah Masood.

The blast went off about 50 meters from Kabul's landmark Massood Square, which leads to the main gate of the heavily fortified US Embassy compound. It left a 2 meter-wide crater.

Witness Najibullah Faizi, 25, said he saw a blue Toyota Corolla driven by a young heavily set man speed past another car on the inside lane before ramming one of two US Humvees in a convoy.

"I fell to the ground after the blast. American soldiers started shooting at another car nearby. There was smoke and flames everywhere," Faizi told reporters.

An Associated Press reporter at the scene saw the bodies of two coalition soldiers lying meters from the vehicle. US troops stood guard around the bodies, one of which was slumped in the gutter, the other covered by a plastic sheet.

Among the dead was an elderly woman who was sitting with her granddaughter in a small yard outside a Soviet-era apartment building whose windows were smashed by the force of the blast.

"My mother just went to the park for some fresh air with my daughter when the explosion happened," said the woman's son, Farid Wahidi, 40. "Shrapnel hit her in the chest and killed her."

Afghan emergency rescue crews scrambled to treat people wounded in the blast. The reporter saw at least one body being carried away and put into the back of an ambulance.

"This is a cowardly action that terrorists always take. They don't care if it is a residential area, government area or military area," said resident Mohammed Hayder Nangahari.

Dozens of US and British soldiers cordoned off the scene as investigators sifted through the wreckage of the charred military vehicle. Soldiers retrieved body parts, apparently from the suicide bomber, and were placing them into plastic bags for further investigation.

Afghanistan is facing its deadliest spate of violence since the Taliban regime was ousted in an American-led invasion in late 2001 for harboring al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden. Hundreds of people — mainly militants — have been killed almost monthly this year amid a wave of suicide bombings and ambushes.

In the southern city of Kandahar, a would-be suicide attacker killed only himself Friday when his bomb-packed car exploded prematurely, said police official Rehmat Ali.

The explosion destroyed the car, which was parked on the main road to the Kandahar Airfield, where Nato vehicles, Afghan security forces and government officials regularly pass. But none were in the area at the time of the blast.

Some 20,000 Nato soldiers and a similar number of US forces are in Afghanistan trying to crush an emboldened Taliban insurgency. The heaviest fighting takes place across vast desert plains in southern Helmand and Kandahar provinces, also center of the country's massive opium trade.

"The fighting is extraordinarily intense. The intensity and ferocity of the fighting is far greater than in Iraq on a daily basis," the commander of British Forces in Afghanistan, Brig. Ed Butler, told British ITV news.

His comments follow Nato commander Gen. James L. Jones' call on Thursday for more troops, saying the next few weeks will be "decisive" in the fight against the militants. Jones expects to press officials from the 26 Nato member states for more soldiers and air support at talks being held in Poland on Friday and Saturday.

Brig. Butler said more soldiers would "generate a higher tempo operation " and that it would allow operations to be carried out more quickly.

"It will continue to be tough and we will continue to take more casualties, but morale is extraordinarily high," Butler said.

Also Friday, Afghan security forces found four bombs near a northern Kabul high school, defusing two and control-detonating the others, said police official Mohammed Arif. No one was hurt.

About 70 Taliban fighters firing rockets attacked a district government headquarters at Chaki Wardak, in the central province of Wardak, early Friday, before police repelled them, said provincial police chief Mahboobullah Amiri.

Eight Taliban were killed and four wounded according to witnesses, Amiri said, but police had retrieved no bodies. One policeman was lightly wounded and eight militants arrested.

Overnight and early Friday, Nato forces launched airstrikes and artillery and mortar barrages on Taliban positions in Kandahar's Panjwayi district, inflicting an unspecified number of Taliban casualties, said Maj. Scott Lundy, a Nato spokesman. No Nato or Afghan forces were hurt.

Lundy said Nato would press on with Operation Medusa, which began Saturday, in Panjwayi until it had "removed" all the Taliban militants. Nato says it has killed more than 270 insurgents since the offensive began and that hundreds more are massed in the district, west of Kandahar.