Weapons blast kills seven US soldiers in Afghanistan

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The Independent Online

An explosion at a weapons cache in Afghanistan killed seven American soldiers, left one missing and wounded three others. An Afghan interpreter also was injured.

The US military was today investigating whether the blast a was an accident or caused deliberately. It led to one of the deadliest days for US forces since they deployed in Afghanistan two years ago.

The explosion occurred yesterday afternoon as the soldiers worked around the cache in the village of Dehe Hendu, about 90 miles south-west of the capital, Kabul, in Ghazni province.

Lt. Col. Bryan Hilferty, a spokesman at US military headquarters in Kabul, said it was unclear whether the blast was an accident.

However, Ghazni province Gov. Haji Asadullah Khan said the blast was set off by mistake as the US soldiers were trying to defuse arms at an old weapons depot found in an open area.

"I'm sure it wasn't a plot by the Taliban," Khan said. "We know the area and the people are good."

Coalition soldiers regularly uncover and destroy caches of weapons, much of it dating back to the US-backed mujahedeen resistance against the Soviet occupation in the 1980s. Residents often lead military units to the caches — a sign, the military says, that it is winning the confidence of Afghans tired after almost a quarter-century of strife.

The wounded soldiers from Thursday's explosion were evacuated to a hospital at Bagram Air Base, the main camp of the US-led coalition in Afghanistan. Names of the victims were being withheld pending notification of relatives.

The deaths come at the end of a bloody month that has underlined the danger and instability still plaguing Afghanistan two years after a US-led invasion ousted the hard-line Islamic Taliban regime for harboring Osama bin Laden and the al-Qaida network.

This month alone, about 80 people have died in violent incidents in Afghanistan, including civilians, militants, police officers, international peacekeepers and now American soldiers.

Only sixteen US soldiers died in the initial combat in Afghanistan in 2001, but the death toll earlier this month from all anti-terrorist missions worldwide under Operation Enduring Freedom reached 100 — of those about two-thirds in Afghanistan, half in combat and the rest in accidents.

The United States provides 9,000 of the 11,000-member anti-terror coalition troops stationed in Afghanistan. Officials say US forces are preparing a spring offensive against Taliban and al-Qaida holdouts amid concern that operations in Afghanistan haven't been as effective in breaking up terrorist networks as they had hoped.

Separately, investigators are also sifting through evidence from suicide bombings that killed British and Canadian soldiers in Kabul earlier this week. The Taliban has claimed responsibility for both blasts, alleging they are the start of a bombing campaign across the country.

British troops held a memorial ceremony Thursday for Pvt. Jonathan Kitulagoda, 23, of Plymouth in southwest England, killed the day before by a suicide bomber.

Commanders and diplomats joined about 150 soldiers to hear readings, prayers and tributes from Kitulagoda's friends in a private gathering, said Capt. Tom Smith, spokesman for the 300-strong British contingent. Kitulagoda's body likely will be flown home next week, he said.

Kitulagoda was killed when a suicide bomber detonated a yellow-and-white taxi next to an unarmored jeep. Four other British soldiers were wounded. That attack came a day after a Canadian soldier was killed in a similar suicide attack.