KABUL: A suicide car bomb attack targeting NATO troops in the Afghan capital on Tuesday killed more than 20 civilians in one of the deadliest strikes in Kabul in months, an army doctor said.
The bomber detonated in western Kabul during the busy rush hour, close to an army recruitment centre and a hospital, but the Afghan interior ministry said NATO's International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) was the target. "We have five bodies brought to our hospital so far... the number of the dead is more than 20, all civilians. The death toll is very high," Afghan army chief doctor General Ahmad Zia Yaftali told AFP.
There was no immediate claim of responsibility for the attack, but the Taliban militia has made suicide bombings a signature of its nearly nine-year insurgency against the Western-backed Afghan government and US-led troops.
Tuesday's bombing was the first major attack in Kabul since February 26 when Taliban suicide bombers targeted guesthouses, killing 16 people including Westerners and Indians in one the deadliest attacks on foreigners. The Islamist militia is waging an increasingly deadly insurgency and attacks have increased over the past 12 months in the heavily guarded capital.
"It was a suicide attack," interior ministry spokesman Zemarai Bashary told AFP, adding the target was ISAF in the west of the city. "There are a number of casualties, civilians killed and wounded," he told AFP.
He did not have further details. ISAF said it was unable to confirm whether there were any NATO casualties in the attack, but said it was assisting with the rescue operation. Afghan television broadcast footage of the bomb site, where US soldiers and Afghan police were seen inspecting a minivan.
Last month, Afghan authorities announced the arrest of nine would-be suicide bombers who were allegedly plotting attacks on "strategic targets" in Kabul. The men, aged between 16 and 55, were arrested during a coordinated operation that included raids on at least one madrassa, or religious school, in the capital, a spokesman for the country's spy agency said.
So far this year, 202 NATO soldiers have died, marking the deadliest January to mid-May period in the Afghan war, as the Taliban fight escalates and the West pours thousands more troops into battle. The grim toll is an AFP tally based on the independent icasualties.org website, after four NATO soldiers were killed on Monday.
From January to end-May 2009, 119 NATO soldiers died in Afghanistan. Overall, 520 NATO troops died in 2009, the deadliest year so far for US-led foreign troops since the 2001 US-led invasion brought down the Taliban regime. Since summer 2009, one or two NATO soldiers have died on average each day.
The United States and its NATO allies are increasing to 150,000 their military deployment in Afghanistan. About two-thirds of the troops are American. The United States believes the troop "surge" can wrest the initiative from the Taliban in key population centres and allow American forces to start withdrawing from the unpopular and costly conflict next year.