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Taliban’s Kabul bombing ‘a message’ to U.S. defense chief Hagel

Published: Updated:

A suicide bomber on a bicycle killed nine people outside the defence ministry in central Kabul on Saturday during a visit to the Afghan capital by new U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel.

The Taliban claimed responsibility for the suicide bomb attack.

“This was not a direct attack to target him but we want to send a message that we are always capable of hitting Kabul even when the top U.S. defense official is there,” Zabiullah Mujahid told AFP news agency by telephone.

One Afghan soldier covered in blood at the scene said he had helped carry five people from the attack site, where several cars were damaged and a wall was left pock-marked.

Gunfire erupted in central Kabul on Saturday after a suicide bomb exploded near the defense ministry during a visit to the city by Hagel.

“It was a suicide bomb followed by gunfire at the south gate of the defense ministry,” a spokesman for the NATO force said, according to AFP news agency.

There was no immediate word on casualties from the blast, or from the gunfire that followed.

The International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) spokesman said Hagel was nowhere near the explosion. A U.S. defense official said Hagel was in a safe location at an ISAF facility.

The attack underscored the security challenges facing Afghanistan as U.S.-led NATO forces prepare to leave the country by the end of 2014.

Hagel landed in Afghanistan on Friday on an unannounced visit nine days after he was sworn into office, vowing to ensure a successful withdrawal of international troops.

Hagel arrived in Kabul as the U.S.-led military coalition prepares to pull out by the end of next year and leave Afghan security forces to battle the Taliban insurgency that has raged across the south and east of the country.

“We have a lot of big issues and challenges ahead as we prepare for a responsible transition,” he told reporters on his plane. “That transition has to be done right, it has to be done in partnership with the Afghans (and) with our allies.”

Hagel was sworn in last week as heavy cuts loom for the U.S. military, but he said that Americans realised that Afghanistan remained a major conflict zone with U.S. troops fighting against Islamist militants since the 9/11 attacks.

“We have 66,000 troops still at war in a combat zone, that reality is there,” he said. “I don’t minimise or marginalise anything just because we may be transitioning to a new phase, we’re still at war in Afghanistan.”