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4 Marines killed in Afghanistan

A fifth is hurt in the roadside attack, the worst on U.S. or coalition forces this year in the country.

June 15, 2008|David Zucchino and M. Karim Faiez | Special to The Times

HELMAND PROVINCE, AFGHANISTAN — In the worst single attack on U.S. or coalition forces in Afghanistan this year, four Marines with a unit based at Twentynine Palms were killed in a roadside bombing Saturday, the military reported. A fifth Marine was wounded in the attack.

Military spokesmen provided no details of the bombing pending notification of the victims' next of kin. The Marines, with the 2nd Battalion, 7th Marine Regiment, arrived in Afghanistan in April to help train and mentor struggling Afghan national police units in Farah and Helmand provinces in southwest Afghanistan.

The attack came a day after U.S. Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates announced that in May, the monthly total of American and coalition combat deaths in Afghanistan for the first time exceeded the total in Iraq.

The deaths Saturday brought the U.S. toll in Afghanistan to at least 44 this year. The previous worst single attack in 2008 killed two Americans.

The roadside bombing Saturday struck a Humvee in Farah province, where the Marine battalion operates bases with Afghan police.

Master Sgt. Marlon Martin, spokesman for the battalion in Afghanistan, said the Marines were returning to base after taking a group of engineers to another location.

"This is truly a sad day for us all, and our hearts go out to all family and friends suffering from this tragic event. . . . Despite serving in harm's way in this inherently dangerous mission, the Marines and sailors of this battalion remain committed to bringing peace and prosperity to the people of Afghanistan," Martin said.

A United Nations survey released this year said that in 2007, Afghanistan experienced the worst violence since United States-led forces toppled the Taliban in 2001. Violence has continued at high rates this year as Marines with the 24th Marine Expeditionary Unit, based at Camp Lejeune, N.C., have pursued and killed Taliban fighters along their infiltration routes in southern Helmand province.

The Taliban has grown increasingly bold in recent months, especially in the south and west, and near their former stronghold, Kandahar.

On Friday, in a sophisticated attack that a Taliban spokesman said had been planned for two months, insurgents blew open the gates of a prison in Kandahar. The jailbreak freed 870 prisoners, among them 390 Taliban members, Sayed Agha Saqib, the police chief of Kandahar province, said Saturday in a telephone interview.

A truck packed with explosives destroyed the front gate and a police post, killing all officers inside. Another explosion ripped through a rear wall at the same time, Afghan officials said.

Moments later, rockets fired from inside the compound struck an upper prison floor, causing it to collapse, said Mohammed Qasim Hashimzai, Afghanistan's deputy justice minister.

Officials had no reason to believe the militants had assistance from anyone inside the prison, Hashimzai said. But as a precaution, the prison's director, Abdul Qadir, was under investigation for any evidence of his involvement, he said.

At least nine police officers and several prisoners were killed, an Interior Ministry spokesman said.

In a telephone interview from an undisclosed location, Qari Yousef Ahmadi, a purported spokesman for the Taliban, said the attack was carried out by 30 men on motorbikes and two suicide bombers. Ahmadi said the assault had been planned for two months.

There was no word Saturday on whether any of the escaped Taliban were members of the group's top leadership.

The prison attack was the third brazen operation mounted this year by insurgents in Afghanistan.

In January, militants blasted their way past heavy security at Afghanistan's only luxury hotel, killing several people.

In April, insurgents mounted an assassination attempt on Afghan President Hamid Karzai at a parade in Kabul. They smuggled weapons into a building near the parade ground despite days of heightened security throughout the capital.

Karzai was hustled away, as were other dignitaries at the event, including the U.S. and British ambassadors. Afghanistan's defense minister later said that an Afghan police captain and an army officer were involved in the plot.

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david.zucchino@latimes.com

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Times staff writer Zucchino reported from Helmand province and special correspondent Faiez from Kabul. Times staff writer Tony Perry in San Diego contributed to this report.

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