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Taliban insurgents hit NATO base, downtown Herat in coordinated attacks

Four civilians are killed in downtown Herat and several Italian soldiers are hurt and an Afghan soldier killed at the NATO facility. The strikes may be part of an effort to target areas where security responsibilities are to be handed over to Afghan forces.

May 31, 2011|By Laura King, Los Angeles Times

Reporting from Kabul, Afghanistan — These days, the parts of Afghanistan that are considered relatively safe may well have a bull's-eye painted on them.

Insurgents staged deadly coordinated strikes Monday in the western city of Herat, where an explosion killed at least four people in a bustling downtown area and a car bomb detonated at the gates of a NATO base, injuring several Italian soldiers inside, Afghan and coalition officials said. An Afghan soldier died in a subsequent shootout.

Herat, a normally tranquil city that lies close to Afghanistan's border with Iran, has been designated as one of the first areas of the country where Western troops are to hand over security responsibilities to Afghan forces beginning in July.

But it is feared the Taliban and other insurgent groups will target these seven cities or provinces in advance of the security transition, seeking to sap the morale of residents, together with that of the Afghan police and soldiers who are supposed to protect them.

Also Monday, three members of the NATO force were killed in other areas of the country, according to military statements. Two died in a roadside bombing in the east, and one in a helicopter "hard landing" — essentially a controlled crash — in the south. It marked the second time in five days a Western service member was killed in a helicopter crash.

Violence has been steadily rising across Afghanistan in the last month, since the Taliban movement declared the start of its spring offensive. Many of the insurgent strikes have targeted heavily guarded Afghan government and security installations, some of them high-profile targets such as the country's biggest military hospital, which was hit by a suicide bombing earlier this month.

Monday's late-morning car bombing outside the Italian-run base on Herat's outskirts led to a sustained gun battle in which 11 Afghan soldiers were injured, provincial authorities said, adding that four assailants were killed. Italian media reports quoted the country's Defense Ministry as saying five Italian soldiers inside the base were hurt in the bombing, one of them seriously.

Italy has about 3,800 soldiers in Afghanistan. As with a number of NATO nations contributing troops to the conflict, the war is unpopular among Italians, cropping up in increasingly acrimonious domestic political debate.

About the same time the Italian base was hit, a bomb apparently concealed in a motorcycle went off at a busy city intersection, said Noor Khan Nekzad, a Herat provincial police spokesman. In addition to the four dead, he said, nearly three dozen people were hurt.

The Taliban claimed responsibility for the attacks.

Meanwhile, the NATO force apologized Monday for the deaths of civilians Saturday in a U.S. airstrike in Helmand province, but its tally — nine — was lower than the count provided by Afghan officials. President Hamid Karzai's office said 14 women and children died when a residential compound was hit.

Karzai strongly condemned the attack, and appealed to the NATO force to exercise more care not to injure and kill civilians. Attacks by insurgents are responsible for about three-quarters of the noncombatant deaths, but those caused by foreign forces tend to cause far more public anger because people believe those forces should be held to a different standard than the Taliban and other militant groups.

Also Monday, the Western military said an attacker in an Afghan army uniform fired on coalition troops in southern Afghanistan, killing at least one member of the NATO force, whose nationality was not disclosed.

Turncoat attacks by Afghan police and soldiers against their Western mentors have become increasingly common in recent months. Taliban leaders have boasted of their ability to infiltrate the Afghan security forces, although some such attacks have apparently been carried out with the use of stolen uniforms.

laura.king@latimes.com

Special correspondent Aimal Yaqubi contributed to this report.

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