Taliban claim suicide attack as U.S., Afghan forces prepare for offensive

A look inside the partnership between U.S. Marines and Afghan soldiers in an area in southern Afghanistan called Marja
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, February 12, 2010; 11:30 AM

Five U.S. service members were wounded when a suicide bomber attacked a combat outpost in eastern Afghanistan, the military reported Friday, as U.S. and Afghan forces prepared to assault an insurgent stronghold in the southern part of the country.

Separately, U.S. and Afghan investigators were conducting a probe into an incident Thursday night in which a joint U.S.-Afghan force reported finding the bound and gagged bodies of three women after a raid on a suspected insurgent compound in eastern Afghanistan. Several insurgents engaged the force in a firefight, and at least two were killed, a U.S. military spokesman said.

The radical Islamist Taliban movement and Afghan officials said the suicide attack on the combat base in Paktia province was carried out Thursday evening by a Taliban bomber dressed in the uniform of the Afghan border police.

"Last night, a Talib by the name of Mohammad Omar wore a border police uniform, entered the base and blew himself up," Taliban spokesman Zabiullah Mujahid told the Associated Press by telephone. A spokesman for the provincial government said the attack occurred after sundown in a barracks on the base in Dand aw Patan district about 35 miles each of Gardez, the capital of Paktia province.

Air Force Lt. Col. Todd Vician, a U.S. military spokesman in Kabul, confirmed that five U.S. service members were wounded by a suicide bomber but said other details of the attack were still under investigation. He said there were no fatalities and no other casualties among the Afghan security forces that also occupy the outpost.

On Dec. 30, a Jordanian suicide bomber killed seven CIA employees and a Jordanian intelligence officer at a CIA base in Khost province near the border with Pakistan. The attacker, a 36-year-old doctor, had been recruited to provide information on the leadership of al-Qaeda and the Taliban in Pakistan, but he acted as a double agent in detonating a suicide vest after entering the base for a meeting with his CIA handlers.

A U.S. team from Bagram air base north of Kabul was sent to investigate the attack on the Paktia outpost Friday.

Officials from the Afghan Interior Ministry and NATO's U.S.-led International Security Assistance Force also were investigating the incident near the village of Khatabeh in Paktia province in which the bodies of the three bound and gagged women were reportedly found.

A joint U.S.-Afghan force entered the compound "after intelligence confirmed militant activity," and "several insurgents engaged the joint force in a firefight," the U.S. military said in a statement. "Subsequently, a large number of men, women and children exited the compound," and eight men were detained for further questioning, it said.

Villagers claimed that U.S. forces were responsible for all five deaths, including those of the three women, the Associated Press reported.

Vician, the U.S. military spokesman in Kabul, disputed that, saying the women's bodies were found in a search of the compound. "They were dead before we arrived," he said.

No details of why or how they died were immediately available.

The incidents in Paktia came as U.S. and Afghan forces surrounded the Taliban stronghold of Marja in Helmand province in preparation for an assault billed as potentially the biggest offensive of the more than eight-year-old war.

U.S. Army and Marine units including the Army's 5th Stryker Brigade closed off escape routes around the town of about 80,000 people, the largest in southern Afghanistan under Taliban control. As many as 1,000 Taliban fighters are believed to be holding Marja, a logistics hub and center of the opium poppy trade that is reportedly ringed by mines, makeshift bombs and booby traps.

"This may be the largest IED threat and largest minefield that NATO has ever faced," Marine Brig. Gen. Larry Nicholson told AP.

As preparations for the offensive continued Friday, the road between Marja and the Helmand provincial capital of Lashkar Gah, about 20 miles to the northeast, was jammed with cars and trucks filled with fleeing civilians. Many of them reportedly had to evade the Taliban in order to leave Marja.

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