- The Washington Times - Tuesday, February 27, 2007

BAGRAM, Afghanistan — A suicide bomber attacked the entrance to the main U.S. military base in Afghanistan yesterday during a visit by Vice President Dick Cheney, killing up to 23 persons and wounding 20.

Mr. Cheney was not hurt in the attack, but was close enough to hear the explosion. Reporters covering his visit saw the resulting plume of smoke.

The Taliban claimed responsibility and said it was attempting to kill the vice president.

It was the closest that militants have come to a top U.S. official visiting Afghanistan. At least one U.S. soldier, an American contractor and a South Korean soldier were among the dead, NATO said.

Mr. Cheney said the attackers were trying “to find ways to question the authority of the central government.”

About two hours after the blast, Mr. Cheney left on a military flight for Kabul to meet with President Hamid Karzai and other officials, then left Afghanistan.

The vice president had spent the night at the sprawling Bagram air base, ate breakfast with the troops, and met with Army Maj. Gen. David Rodriguez, the commander of U.S. troops in Afghanistan.

He was preparing to leave for a meeting with Mr. Karzai when the suicide bomber struck about 10 a.m. U.S. military officials declared a Red Alert at the base.

“I heard a loud boom,” Mr. Cheney told reporters. “The Secret Service came in and told me there had been an attack on the main gate.”

He said he was moved “for a brief period of time” to a bomb shelter on the base near his quarters. “As the situation settled down and they had a better sense of what was going on, I went back to my room,” Mr. Cheney added.

Asked whether the Taliban were trying to send a message with the attack, Mr. Cheney said: “I think they clearly try to find ways to question the authority of the central government.

“Striking at Bagram with a suicide bomber, I suppose, is one way to do that,” he said. “But it shouldn’t affect our behavior at all.”

Maj. William Mitchell said the explosion did not appear to be intended as a threat to Mr. Cheney. “He wasn’t near the site of the explosion,” Maj. Mitchell said. “He was safely within the base at the time of the explosion.”

Death toll reports were conflicting. Mr. Karzai’s office said 23 persons were killed, including 20 Afghan workers at the base. Another 20 persons were injured, it said.

NATO’s International Security Assistance Force said initial reports were that three persons were killed, including a U.S. soldier, an American contractor and a South Korean soldier. U.S. officials indicated that they planned to update that death toll.

Associated Press reporters at the scene saw 12 bodies being carried in black body bags and wooden coffins from the base entrance into a market area where hundreds of Afghans had gathered to mourn.

Friends and relatives cried and moaned as they took the bodies away from the base. Two men came to the base entrance crying and wringing their hands, one of them screaming, “My brother.”

A message posted on a Web site used by militants said “a mujahid … carried out a suicide attack in front of the second gate of the Bagram Air Base. … The target was Bush’s vice president, Dick Cheney.”

A purported Taliban spokesman, Qari Yousef Ahmadi, said Mr. Cheney was the target of the attack, which Mr. Ahmadi said was carried out by an Afghan called Mullah Abdul Rahim, of Logar province.

“We knew that Dick Cheney would be staying inside the base,” Mr. Ahmadi told AP by telephone from an undisclosed location. “The attacker was trying to reach Cheney.”

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