By: Fisnik Abrashi
The three armored Chevrolet Suburbans from the U.S. Embassy caught my eye Monday morning alongside the donkey carts and rundown Toyotas that compete for space on the muddy, bumpy highway that heads east out of Afghanistan’s capital.
“You should never get too close to those vehicles,” I cautioned my driver as we waited at an intersection to let them pass while on our way to run errands.
Moments later, a fireball ripped through the convoy, wounding five U.S. Embassy security guards and killing a 15-year-old Afghan bystander ? the first Taliban suicide bombing in Kabul this year.
Taliban and other militants are increasingly resorting to Iraq-style tactics of suicide and roadside bombings in their campaign against foreign troops and President Hamid Karzai’s shaky government.
Last year saw an explosion of violence in Afghanistan, including 139 suicide attacks, mostly in the south and east. Maj. William Mitchell, a U.S. military spokesman, said there have been 28 suicide attacks in 2007, including one last month that killed 23 people outside the big U.S. base at Bagram during a visit by Vice President Dick Cheney.
Kabul remains comparatively calm, but when a bomb does shatter the peace, more often than not it comes on the potholed Jalalabad Road where NATO, U.S. and Afghan army bases are located and which leads to Bagram north of the capital.
NATO troops in armored personnel carriers barrel down the highway, as do armored SUVs often used by foreign diplomats and security contractors, like the three Chevys without number plates that passed us.
As Sher, my driver, slowed the Associated Press car — he was taking me to do some shopping on my day off — the two black and one silver SUVs passed. A small truck got in between us and the convoy as we merged into busy traffic.
Just as we picked up speed, a huge fireball erupted in the convoy about 50 to 70 yards ahead of us. Black smoke billowed into the air while debris showered down. We pulled over and jumped out to seek safety behind a wall.
Flames engulfed the bomber’s wrecked Toyota Corolla, flung next to a line of pine trees and tall aerials on the right side of the road. Other charred debris was strewn across the road and in nearby fields.
The black SUV at the head of the convoy bore the brunt of the blast, ending up on the left side of the road, some of its bulletproof windows smashed and its front mangled. The two Suburbans behind it were also damaged.
One of the doors of the badly damaged SUV opened. An armed man got out, dazed and limping as he slumped next to the rear right tire. Other guards jumped from the three SUVs, pointing their guns in a circle to guard against a potential ambush or second bomber.
A man was pulled from the front SUV and laid on the muddy ground. Some guards administered first aid as a crowd started gathering.
It was not clear who was in the convoy, but the embassy said Ambassador Ronald Neumann was not among them. A NATO spokesman, Col. Tom Collins, said the five wounded were security personnel for the embassy. He said one was seriously hurt. A 15-year-old boy passing by was killed, said Hasib Arian, the district police chief.
A Taliban spokesman, Qari Yousef Ahmadi, said in a phone call to the AP that a Taliban militant from Khost province carried out the attack. The claim could not be independently verified.
Minutes after the blast, Afghan security forces arrived with sirens wailing.
The guards from the convoy, joined by other U.S. personnel who raced up in more armored SUVs from the fortress-like embassy compound 2 miles down the road, did not want the Afghans getting close. Tempers flared and shouting broke out.
A shouting embassy man ran toward the Afghan intelligence service and took a camera from one of them as he filmed the blast scene from a distance.
Two other embassy guards confronted a two-man Italian TV crew and took their camera, saying they could get it from the embassy later. The journalists were in Kabul to cover Monday’s release by Taliban militants of Italian reporter Daniele Mastrogiacomo, who had been kidnapped in the south. The team pleaded for their equipment back. They got it 10 hours later, tape inside, from the Italian Embassy.
A French military officer — part of the NATO-led security force that patrols Kabul — said the U.S. embassy security team blocked him from approaching the scene for 20 minutes. Later French and British soldiers helped secure the site and investigate the bombing.
“Everyone gets a bit nervous after these attacks,” said the officer, who refused to be quoted by name. “I showed them my flag but they did not care,” he said, referring to the French tricolor stitched to his uniform. “That is not good.”
None of the vehicles in the attacked convoy was immediately recognizable as a U.S. car, but hulking SUVs of that type would mark the occupants as foreigners, embassy employees or high-ranking Afghan officials.
All three Suburbans appeared to have jamming devices on their roofs — sophisticated technology that can delay a remotely detonated roadside bomb from going off, but powerless against a suicide attacker in a car loaded with explosives.
More than an hour after the bombing, a convoy of 12 embassy SUVs took away the guards hit by the attack. French military investigators scoured the nearby fields for evidence. Hundreds of Afghans stood in the rain, watching.