BAGRAM, Afghanistan – Two new attacks were reported Monday against U.S.-led forces in Afghanistan — part of an upsurge in fighting now that warmer weather makes it easier for fighters to move about in mountainous terrain.
Nevertheless, plans to bring the 87-year-old former king home this week are moving ahead despite the ongoing conflict. International peacekeepers are helping with preparations to ensure the monarch's safety.
In the most recent incident, two explosions occurred Sunday night at an airfield used by coalition forces in the southeastern city of Khost on the Pakistan border, said Maj. Bryan Hilferty, a U.S. military spokesman. The blasts came near the spot where two rocket-propelled grenades exploded Saturday night, he said.
Hilferty also said a joint U.S.-Afghan patrol came under fire Saturday night, and five Al Qaeda or Taliban attackers were killed when the coalition troops called in an AC-130 gunship airstrike. It was the second attack Saturday on a joint U.S.-Afghan patrol, he said.
In the earlier attack, which occurred before dawn Saturday, U.S. officials said they believed several attackers were killed — again by an AC-130 called in to drive off the raiders.
There were no U.S. or coalition fatalities in the weekend attacks, which broke a several week lull in fighting between U.S. and Afghan troops and fighters from the Taliban or Usama bin Laden's Al Qaeda movement.
However, Afghan authorities said three Afghans were wounded in the Saturday night attack on the Khost airstrip.
U.S. officials have refused to specify where the attacks against patrols occurred but they may have taken place in or near Khost province, thought to be one of the last major Al Qaeda and Taliban strongholds.
The area is marked by mountains which rise to 12,000 feet and narrow passes which offer escape rotes into Pakistan.
"They don't fight much in winter because it's very cold and hard to get through passes, hard to survive," Hilferty said of the Al Qaeda and Taliban forces. "Historically, wars have picked up in intensity in the spring."
Hilferty said U.S. commanders had "always expected there would be more attacks now than there would be in January or February."
Despite the incidents, Afghan authorities said plans were underway for the return this week of the country's exiled former king, Mohammad Zaher Shah, who has lived in Italy since he was ousted in a coup in 1973.
Interim leader Hamid Karzai was expected to go to Rome on Tuesday to escort Zaher Shah back home — either Wednesday or Thursday.
Although there are no plans to restore the monarchy, the former king is expected to convene a grand council, or loya jirga, to choose a new Afghan government. Local officials across the country have already begun the selection process for delegates to the loya jirga, which is scheduled for June.
Using barbed wire and concrete cylinders, security forces on Monday blocked off three streets surrounding the Kabul house where the king is expected to live. Four armored personnel carriers belonging to the international peacekeeping force were stationed near the residence.
Peacekeepers and local Afghan security forces staged drills in preparation for the former monarch's arrival. A German peacekeeper outside the residence gave orders to about two dozen Afghan police as part of the exercise.
"If anybody shoots at you, even your brother, you must fire back," he told the men through a translator.
In one drill, a German peacekeeper stopped a Humvee and pointed his automatic rifle at the driver. In another, a peacekeeper lay on the ground with his hands behind his back as if handcuffed.