KABUL, Dec 31 (Reuters) – A suicide bomber penetrated a foreign army base in Afghanistan and killed seven CIA employees on Wednesday, one of the U.S. agency’s largest death tolls, while four Canadian troops and a journalist died in a separate attack.
The suicide attack was one of the most ambitious of the war, highlighting the insurgency’s reach and coordination at a time when violence has reached its highest levels since the overthrow of the Taliban regime by U.S.-backed Afghan forces in 2001.
The Taliban claimed the attacker as a sympathiser from the Afghan army who detonated a vest of explosives at a meeting with CIA workers. A spokesman for NATO-led forces in Afghanistan said Afghan security forces were working on the base.
A U.S. official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said seven CIA employees and one Afghan had been killed in the attack. Officials had initially said eight CIA employees were killed.
“This deadly attack was carried out by a valorous Afghan army member,” Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid told Reuters.
The Afghan Defence Ministry said no Afghan soldiers were involved in the attack and said none were stationed at the site of the attack in southeastern Khost province. But if the bomber does prove to be from the army, it would mark the second deadly attack in three days on foreign troops and officials by the soldiers they are meant to be mentoring.
A string of such killings have cast a shadow over Western plans to bolster the Afghan army and police to allow them to eventually bring their own troops back home.
U.S. President Barack Obama is sending 30,000 extra troops to tackle the violence and NATO allies are contributing thousands more, but Obama has also said he hopes to start scaling back by 2011. An Afghan army official said on Wednesday that Washington had pledged $16 billion to train the army and air force.
U.S. officials said the dead Americans were CIA employees but declined to comment on the attacker’s nationality or status.
The CIA has been expanding its presence in the country, stepping up strikes against Taliban and al Qaeda militants along the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan, although its role has been criticised by rights groups and Afghans.
The site of the suicide attack is near the Pakistan border, in one of the areas where the Taliban insurgency is strongest. Security in the region was stepped up on Thursday.
The five Canadians — four soldiers and a journalist — were killed when their armoured vehicle was hit by a bomb in southern Kandahar province, the Canadian Defence Ministry said.
The blast, about 4 km (2.5 miles) outside Kandahar, struck the patrol as it was visiting community reconstruction projects.
Washington has pledged a “civilian surge”, adding hundreds of U.S. experts to support work on development projects that aim to undermine support for the Taliban and other insurgents. But foreign aid agencies warned earlier this year that the shift into the military bases, and the use of military personnel to carry out development projects, risked a dangerous blurring of the boundaries between troops and civilians.
The journalist killed was Michelle Lang, 34, on assignment for the Canwest News Service. She was on her first assignment in Afghanistan and had been in the country since Dec. 11. She is the third journalist to die in Afghanistan this year.
Two French journalists were also kidnapped by insurgents on Wednesday, when travelling in an area northeast of the capital with a driver and translator, a police official said. Media sources in Paris said they were working for French television.
In another incident, a number of civilians were killed by a foreign forces’ air strike in southern Helmand province on Wednesday, Daoud Ahmadi, the provincial governor’s spokesman, said. He did not know how many had died but said an investigation had begun. NATO-led forces declined to make an immediate comment.
The incident is the second report of civilian casualties at the hands of foreign forces in under a week, and has heightened tensions between the Afghan government and foreign troops.
Afghan and United Nations officials say foreign troops killed at least eight civilians, mostly teenagers, in a raid in eastern Afghanistan on Saturday, sparking protests around the country.
The NATO-led force said it was questioning the claims of civilian casualties and maintains they were insurgents. It has called for a joint investigation with Afghan authorities.
The news of more casualties came on Thursday as hundreds of people protested in Kunar, where Saturday’s raid took place.