KABUL, Afghanistan – A Soviet-era anti-aircraft missile exploded Wednesday as international peacekeepers in the Afghan capital tried to defuse it. Two German and three Danish soldiers were killed and eight others were injured, officials said.
Brig. Gen. Carl Hubertus von Butler, commander of German peacekeeping troops in Afghanistan, called the explosion a "tragic incident." Caring for the wounded, who were rushed to peacekeepers' medical facilities in Kabul, was the top priority, he said.
The soldiers were attempting to destroy two Russian-made SA-3 ground-to-air missiles with a controlled explosion at a munitions collection point about 3 miles from the German military's base in Kabul, said Gen. Harald Kujat, Germany's top military officer.
The SA-3 was part of the arsenal of Afghanistan's former Taliban rulers, officials said.
"Apparently, the explosion went off early," Kujat told a news conference in Berlin. "The soldiers were still in the area close to the two missiles."
Other details about the explosion remained unclear, such as how many soldiers were in the vicinity of the explosion, how the explosion was triggered and why the casualty figure was so high.
In addition to the five dead, eight soldiers were injured, Butler said. Among them, three were seriously wounded, Kujat said. The Danish Defense Command said three of the injured were Danes.
The casualties were the first German or Danish soldiers killed in the security force set up to protect the government of Afghan interim leader Hamid Karzai.
"It's not easy to continue our mission but we will continue it as well as we can," a somber Butler told a Kabul news conference late Wednesday night.
German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder expressed condolences to the families of the dead soldiers, calling it a tragic accident. He said, however, that the accident should not raise questions about Germany's deployment in the region.
"It was a task that did not have anything to do with military conflict. There is no reason to question the mission," Schroeder said.
Germany's decision last November to offer up to 3,900 soldiers for the U.S.-led war on terrorism and related tasks was preceded by a wrenching national debate over the most far-reaching deployment since World War II.
Kujat, the chief of the German armed forces, said it appeared soldiers were observing safety regulations and there was no evidence of sabotage. "This was an accident," he said.
More than 700 German soldiers are part of the international security force deployed in and around the Afghan capital. About 50 Danish soldiers specialized in mine clearing were sent to Afghanistan in January.
The SA-3 has a range of 11 miles and weighs 2,100 pounds. It was designed to destroy aircraft, cruise missiles, assault helicopters and other targets at low or medium altitudes. First introduced in 1961, the missile is comparable to a MIM-23 Hawk in the U.S. arsenal.
Germany has pledged a total of 3,900 troops for the anti-terror campaign, including the naval contingent deployed off the Horn of Africa, troops in Afghanistan and about 100 in neighboring Uzbekistan.