By Rahim Faiez Associated Press
KABUL — Afghan security forces arrested nine members of a terrorist cell and seized nearly a quarter-ton of explosives, foiling a plot to stage suicide bombings and other attacks in Kabul, the country’s intelligence service said today.
In the southern province of Kandahar, meanwhile, a remote-controlled bomb planted on a donkey exploded near a police checkpoint, killing three children aged 11, 12 and 15, said Zalmai Ayubi, spokesman for the governor.
The victims were nephews of Fazel Uddin Agha, a tribal elder in Kandahar who served as an election campaign manager for President Hamid Karzai last year, Ayubi said. The blast also wounded two police officers and two civilians.
An American soldier also was killed and several wounded in an explosion at an Afghan National Army facility just outside the capital, Kabul, said a spokesman for international forces, Col. Wayne Shanks. The blast originally was reported to have killed an Afghan soldier.
The discovery of the terror cell in Kabul marked the second time in recent weeks that the security services claimed to have prevented major attacks on the capital, a result they say of better training and use of informants.
Intelligence service spokesman Saeed Ansari said four of the suspects were arrested while traveling in a vehicle in the city’s eastern district, while five others were picked up at an Islamic school in Kabul.
He said security forces also confiscated six rifles, two machine guns, two rocket-propelled grenades, 440 pounds of explosives, six suicide bomb vests and a vehicle. The dates of the arrests were not disclosed.
The suspects, one of whom was a Pakistani citizen, ranged in age from 16 to 55 and had been given specific responsibilities within the group, such as arranging accommodation or transporting arms, Ansari said. Three of the group were identified as would-be suicide bombers, although Ansari said the cell possessed enough explosives and vests to equip up to six suicide attackers.
He said the group was acting under orders from a Pakistan-based Taliban faction, which had rented a house in eastern Kabul, shipped weapons across the border and provided funds for the purchase of a vehicle to be used in suicide attacks.
The arrests follow the interception of a vehicle on April 8 on the outskirts of Kabul carrying what police said were five would-be suicide bombers on their way to carry out a major attack in the city — the largest such team ever detained in the capital.
Police said at the time the bombers were sent by an al-Qaida-linked insurgent group based in Pakistan, and their capture follows widespread rumors that militants were planning attacks in the diplomatic quarter of Kabul.
The last major attack within Kabul took place Feb. 26 when suicide bombers struck two small hotels in the center of the city, killing at least 16 people, including six Indians. Afghan authorities blamed the attack on Lashkar-e-Taiba, the same Pakistan-based Islamist militia that India blames for the 2008 Mumbai terrorist attacks that killed 166 people.
The U.S. military, meanwhile, said it wasn’t alarmed by video appearing to show the Taliban in control of an eastern mountain outpost deserted last week when the remaining 120 troops U.S. troops were pulled out of the remote Korengal Valley.
“When we repositioned our forces we knew that there was a real possibility of insurgent forces going into there, but we still believe that decision was the correct one based on the resources that we have available and the objectives that we want to achieve,” a spokesman, Col. Wayne Shanks, said.
The footage aired on Al-Jazeera showed armed men saying they had captured valuable fuel, but U.S. spokesmen said fuel supplies and living quarters had been intentionally left for area residents, while important fighting positions and observation posts were demolished and weaponry and ammunition either removed or destroyed.
In the north of the country, Afghan and international forces were continuing an offensive to drive the Taliban away from population centers and a key supply route. As of Sunday, at least 29 militants, including two commanders, had been killed over four days of intense fighting, the Interior Ministry said.
NATO also said a combined Afghan and international force killed a number of suspected insurgents during a search for a senior Taliban commander in Ghazni province south of the capital. Troops were fired on as they approached a residential compound in the Qarahbagh district, returning fire and killing an unspecified number of militants.
Fighting elsewhere in the country killed two other insurgents in the eastern province of Khost and one in Kandahar, NATO said.
Meanwhile, a magnitude 5.3 earthquake struck in mountains north of Afghanistan’s capital early today, killing at least seven people and injuring 30, officials said.
The temblor hit in Samangan province, about halfway between Kabul and the northern city of Mazar-i-Sharif, according to the province’s deputy governor, Kulam Sakhi Baghlani.
Roads and communications are sparse in the area, and casualty reports take time to reach authorities. The quake was felt in Kabul as well as the neighboring countries of Uzbekistan and Tajikistan.
Baghlani said three districts of scattered mud-walled villages were affected, with more than 300 homes damaged and dozens of head of livestock killed. Landslides sparked by the quake had blocked roads, making even more arduous what was already an eight-hour drive along winding mountain trails from the provincial capital of Aybak.