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Taliban offensive kills 35 in suicide hit

- The Washington Times - Monday, June 18, 2007

TARIN KOWT, Afghanistan — Taliban forces staged a major counteroffensive over the weekend against Dutch, Australian and Afghan forces, which have been steadily extending their territory in rugged Uruzgan province north of Kandahar.

In the capital yesterday, terrorists destroyed a bus full of police instructors at Kabul's busiest transportation hub, killing 35 persons and wounding 52 in the deadliest insurgent attack since the U.S.-led invasion in 2001.

The explosion was the fifth suicide attack in Afghanistan in three days, part of a spike in violence across the country, the Associated Press reported.

In Kandahar province in the south, a roadside bomb killed three members of the U.S.-led coalition and an Afghan interpreter. The soldiers' nationalities were not released, but most in the coalition are American.

The fighting around Tarin Kowt, which was witnessed by a correspondent for The Washington Times, began Friday afternoon when a car packed with explosives blew up beside a Dutch armored personnel carrier.

A Dutch soldier and about 10 Afghans, including several children, were killed by the car bomb, which exploded outside a girls school in this shambling town of 100,000.

Australian forces patrolled Tarin Kowt under the watchful eye of an aerial drone after the blast. But the nearby village of Chura, a few miles to the north, quickly came under attack as hundreds of Taliban fighters descended from the mountains to fire rockets, mortars and small arms at checkpoints manned by Dutch and Afghan forces.

Afghan forces held the line as the Dutch moved forward, calling in 155 mm artillery fire and Apache attack helicopters firing rockets and cannons. Dutch F-16 fighter jets based at Kandahar swooped in to drop bombs.

The fighting continued into Saturday morning, with no additional coalition casualties reported. Dutch army spokesman Maj. Erik Jonkers said at least 30 Taliban had been killed.

Fighting flared again late Saturday. Apache crews raced to their helicopters while Dutch army Sgt. 1st Class Richard and his crew — who like many coalition troops asked to be identified by only their first names for security reasons — fired 3-foot shells into the night sky based on radio calls from artillery spotters in Chura.

Uruzgan province sits astride a major smuggling route connecting Pakistan to Helmand province's expansive poppy fields, which produce a majority of the world's opium and finance Taliban operations.

Since August, the Dutch and Australians have carefully pushed into the valley, taking one town at a time and shoring up their defenses with increasing numbers of Afghan police, whom they train at Camp Holland.

The Dutch soldier killed on Friday represented only the second combat fatality for that nation's approximately 2,000-strong contingent in Afghanistan.

Prior to Friday, the Dutch had taken a much-criticized "softer" approach to warfare than their allies, focusing on reconstruction, training and humanitarian operations as a means of winning over Afghanistan's xenophobic rural tribes.

A joint Dutch and Australian Provincial Reconstruction Team represents the major military formation in Uruzgan.

"We're not hunting the Taliban," Maj. Jonkers said last week. "We're here to make them not important anymore. But it's not about cowardice. When we fight, we fight."

Reconstruction in Tarin Kowt — including an Australian project to rebuild a soccer field at a boys school — continued despite the Taliban attacks. On Friday, engineers spread tons of fresh dirt for the field while the wreckage of the suicide bomber's car continued to burn two blocks away.