Suicide attack inflicts worst death toll on CIA in 25 years

Seven agents killed in base bombing while roadside blast kills five Canadians

Seven Americans killed in a suicide bombing in Afghanistan were CIA officers, the agency said yesterday. The assault was the deadliest inflicted on the spy agency since 1983, and the second deadliest in its history.

Last night the Taliban admitted responsibility for Wednesday's attack, in which a suicide bomber dressed in Afghan army uniform blew himself up in a gym at Forward Operating Base Chapman, in Khost province. The blast was at one of the most secretive and highly guarded military locations in Afghanistan, and on the frontline of the counter-insurgency campaign.

The CIA station chief in Khost, a mother of three, was among the dead. Six other CIA personnel were injured in the blast. Initial reports had said eight Americans were killed.

Officers, agents and special forces quartered at the base were part of the alliance's so-called "decapitation campaign" targeting Taliban and al-Qa'ida leaders.

The Khost bombing came within hours of a roadside explosion in Kandahar which claimed the lives of five Canadians and which was also the work of the Taliban.

Intelligence gathered at the Khost base was used for operations both in Afghanistan and, through unmanned Predator strikes, across the border into Pakistan. Its infiltration by the Taliban raises fresh doubts about the reliability of Afghan forces now being trained as part of the West's exit strategy from the conflict. Around 200 Afghans had been hired for security duties at the base.

The attack took place at dusk as unarmed Americans were working out in the gym. Six others, also described as civilians and presumed to be CIA staff, were injured, two of them critically.

Deaths in the ranks of the CIA, especially those involving local recruits, are shrouded in secrecy. In the past eight years, the CIA has acknowledged the deaths of four officers in Afghanistan. Former agents said the agency had not suffered such a high casualty toll since an attack on the US embassy in Beirut in 1983, when eight CIA employees were among 60 killed.

Khost, in south-eastern Afghanistan, lies on an insurgent supply route. The area borders north Waziristan in Pakistan, which has long been a base for al-Qa'ida and other Islamist groups. American and Afghan military have come under repeated attacks in the province, with 13 civilians killed and 36 injured in May. In 1998 the US fired missiles into an al-Qa'ida camp in Khost, then in Taliban-controlled Afghanistan, after attacks on American embassies in Africa. Osama bin Laden, the intended target, escaped after being warned, it is believed, by the Pakistani intelligence service.

The CIA and other American and allied Western intelligence agencies have steadily raised their presence in Afghanistan. Bruce Hoffman, a professor at Georgetown University's School of Foreign Service, said the assault was a serious reversal in Nato's war efforts, as those killed and injured knew the terrain: "Every American death in a theatre of war is tragic, but these might be more consequential given these officers' unique capabilities and attributes."

In the second bombing, in the southern city of Kandahar, a roadside blast killed four Canadian soldiers and a 34-year-old journalist, Michelle Lang, a health reporter with the Calgary Herald.

Meanwhile the Afghan President, Hamid Karzai, has condemned the killings of eight young Afghans during a raid by US special forces in Kunar province. Reports of a massacre surfaced on Monday, prompting an Afghan investigation. According to a statement on President Karzai's website, "a unit of international forces descended from a plane Sunday night into Ghazi Khan Village... and took 10 people from three homes, eight of them school students in grades six, nine and 10, one of them a guest, the rest from the same family, and shot them dead."

The International Security Assistance Force insisted that only insurgents had been killed in the raid, but Kai Eide, the UN's envoy in Afghanistan, said eight of the dead were teenagers enrolled in local schools.

"If Washington and its allies are to win a guerrilla war, the CIA's expertise is vital"

Editorial, page 30

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