Suicide bomb kills four German soldiers as Afghan militants target peacekeepers

A suicide attack against a bus carrying international peacekeepers yesterday brought bloodshed and fear to the Afghan capital, Kabul, and blew apart claims that the city has become an island of relative safety.

A car bomb killed four German soldiers and seriously injured 10 others in an early morning blast heard across the city.

A brief statement from the United States military in Afghanistan, whose 8,000 troops are leading efforts to quell increasingly active anti-government guerrillas, said 28 people had been injured. Some reports suggested that Afghan passers-by may also have been hurt.

This was by far the worst assault against the International Security Assistance Force (Isaf) since it was mandated by the United Nations 18 months ago to assist Hamid Karzai's transitional government to establish security in and around the capital.

There have been a growing number of attacks against Isaf's 4,600 troops - who include 130 from Britain - in the past few months. These have come as the American military has renewed its effort to crush Islamist guerrillas - a mixture of pro-Taliban fighters and supporters of al-Qa'ida - in the provinces.

Leaflets have been circulating for months urging Afghans to rise up against the foreign presence in their land. Some attacks have been made against the 8,000-strong US military while others appear to be an attempt to prevent the enfeebled Karzai administration from establishing itself - for example, by killing Afghan soldiers.

Now it appears that the international peacekeepers are the target. Last month, two Norwegian soldiers were shot and wounded just outside Kabul; a hand grenade was thrown into the headquarters of the British troops, without causing any injuries; and a German soldier was killed when his vehicle ran over a land mine - although this was possibly an old mine.

In March, Isaf's headquarters in central Kabul was hit by a rocket. Two weeks earlier, a remote-control bomb wounded a Dutch peacekeeper and killed an Afghan translator.

To this should be added a demoralising accident - the deaths of 62 Spanish peacekeepers a fortnight ago when the plane carrying them home crashed in Turkey.

Yesterday's bombing happened as a bus carrying German soldiers was on its way to Kabul airport, where they are based. An Isaf spokesman told The Independent on Sunday that the bus was overtaken by a taxi that exploded as it was passing.

The incident did not change the peacekeeping forces' commitment, he said. The 29 contributing nations were "aware that by sending troops [to Afghanistan] they were entering a mission with risks". He added: "We made an assessment of the risks; unfortunately, today that assessment proved to be right."

Germany's Chancellor, Gerhard Schröder, condemned the killings as the "cowardly" and "underhand" work of "terrorists".

The attack will fuel the arguments of those who say that, after ousting the Taliban, the Bush administration was too quick to claim success and switch focus to invading Iraq.

There, too, the Americans are facing the stirrings of armed resistance. The Kabul bombing may prompt countries to think twice before responding positively to US requests to send peacekeeping forces to Iraq.

It is also a setback for Mr Karzai, coming immediately after his return to Afghanistan after a trip to Britain to see Tony Blair, in which he sought to present himself to his fellow countrymen as a convincing national leader.

In London, where he pressed for billions of dollars more in foreign aid to help his country's reconstruction, Mr Karzai sought to counter the oft-voiced criticism that he has control only over the capital - and that much of the the rest of Afghanistan is a dangerous place dominated by warlords.

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