Insurgents attack major coalition base in Afghanistan

By Joby Warrick and Joshua Partlow
Sunday, May 23, 2010

KANDAHAR AIRFIELD, AFGHANISTAN -- Insurgents launched a brazen ground and rocket attack late Saturday against NATO's largest military base in southern Afghanistan, wounding several coalition troops, military officials said.

About four rockets crashed down about 8 p.m. on Kandahar Airfield, one of them exploding near a popular coffee shop and causing several casualties, officials said.

In an apparently coordinated strike, a group of insurgents attempted to breach a gate on the north side of the base but were beaten back. At least two insurgents were killed, the officials said.

The number and nature of coalition casualties were not immediately clear.

"The perimeter was not breached," said Brig. Gen. Josef Blotz, a spokesman for the International Security Assistance Force.

The assault appeared to be ongoing late Saturday. Attack helicopters were seen blasting positions near the fence with missiles and machine guns.

Several planes that were awaiting takeoff on the runway were evacuated, and base officials ordered passengers into bunkers as loudspeakers blared warnings. Some troops who were awaiting flights were dispatched with their weapons to help fend off possible attackers, while others huddled in the dark near the tarmac to watch the helicopters' counterattack.

A security contractor at the base who spoke on the condition of anonymity said he heard about five or six explosions. One of the rockets, he said, landed near the Green Bean coffee shop on the base "boardwalk," a covered wooden walkway area that includes many restaurants and shops.

"There was a number of casualties. We saw a lot of smoke. It's a heavily populated area," the contractor said.

Sirens began wailing a second time around 11 p.m., three hours after the initial assault, but there were no reports of additional rocket fire from insurgents. Unmanned drone aircraft buzzed overhead and flares lighted up the sky near the northern gate as the hunt for the assailants continued.

The attack came three days after insurgents assaulted Bagram air base, another massive NATO facility, with rockets, grenades and gunfire, killing one U.S. contractor and wounding several others.

It was at least the third high-profile attack targeting NATO troops in less than a week. One day before the Bagram strike, a suicide bomber blew up his car near a NATO convoy in Kabul, killing five U.S. troops, a Canadian officer and at least a dozen Afghan civilians. Those incidents followed a Taliban warning earlier in the month that the movement was launching a spring offensive aimed at killing foreign soldiers and derailing reconciliation talks scheduled to begin in a few weeks.

Blotz, the ISAF spokesman, said the Kandahar attack appeared to involve a small group of insurgents and lacked the sophistication of the assault on Bagram.

© 2010 The Washington Post Company