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Suicide bomber disguised as police officer kills 21 in Afghanistan

The Taliban claims responsibility for the attack at a police compound. Dozens of other police officers are also injured.

February 03, 2009|M. Karim Faiez and Laura King

KABUL, AFGHANISTAN, AND ISTANBUL, TURKEY — In an attack that underscored the vulnerability of Afghanistan's struggling security forces, a suicide bomber dressed in a police uniform slipped into a police compound and detonated a powerful explosive device Monday, killing at least 21 officers, authorities said.

The attack in southern Afghanistan also wounded a dozen police officers, according to the Interior Ministry.

Over the last two years, Taliban insurgents have increasingly focused their attacks on Afghan security forces rather than the much better trained, better armed and better protected Western troops, who number more than 60,000.

The police are considered a far "softer" target than Afghan soldiers, who are often in the company of NATO or U.S. forces and have been taking the lead in more and more combat missions. Many police outposts are only lightly defended, with relatively lax security. Nearly 1,000 police officers were killed last year in insurgent attacks.

A key component of Western strategy in Afghanistan is to hand over greater responsibility to the Afghan police and army, because locally recruited forces have a much better rapport with the populace. American troops carry out much of the training.

But as a result of unrelenting Taliban attacks, the police force, which is considered a key line of defense in remote communities, is demoralized, prone both to desertion and to infiltration by the Taliban.

Monday's bombing took place in Tirin Kot, the capital of Oruzgan province. The province is part of a swath of southern Afghanistan where the insurgency is at its strongest.

The Taliban movement claimed responsibility for the attack and boasted that its bombers could strike anywhere. The Afghan Defense Ministry said Monday that three other would-be suicide bombers, already outfitted with explosives-filled vests, had been arrested in Oruzgan, but did not say when.

The police officers, most of them reservists, were engaged in an exercise when the attacker managed to make his way into their compound and into the center of a large group, said Juma Gul Himas, the provincial police chief. It was not immediately clear whether the bomber had been searched.

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laura.king@latimes.com

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Faiez is a special correspondent.

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