KABUL, Afghanistan – Intelligence reports indicated Taliban terrorists had the ability to set off homicide attacks in the Bagram area even before a bombing that killed 23 people during a visit by Vice President Dick Cheney, a NATO spokesman said Wednesday.
Militants have suicide bomb cells in Kabul, just 30 miles south of the large U.S. military base at Bagram, said Col. Tom Collins, the top spokesman for NATO's International Security Assistance Force.
"We know for a fact that there has been recent intelligence to suggest that there was the threat of a bombing in the Bagram area," Collins said. "It's clear that there are suicide bomber cells operating in this country. There are some in the city of Kabul."
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Tuesday's bombing killed about 20 Afghan civilians, a U.S. soldier, a U.S. contractor and a South Korean soldier outside Bagram while Cheney was meeting with officials inside the base, an attack the Taliban claimed was aimed at Cheney but which officials said posed no real threat to the vice president.
The attacker never attempted to penetrate even the first of several U.S.-manned security checkpoints at Bagram, instead detonating himself among a group of Afghan workers outside the base.
"The Taliban's claims that they were going after the vice president were absurd," Collins said.
Cheney was the highest-ranking U.S. official to stay overnight in either the Afghanistan or Iraq war zones.
Officials hadn't yet determined if the Taliban knew Cheney was at Bagram or if the attack was just coincidence, Collins said.
"We actually think that their tying it to the vice president's visit ... was an attempt to draw attention away from the fact that the attack killed so many Afghan civilians, including a 12-year-old boy," said Lt. Col. David Accetta, a U.S. military spokesman.
Afghanistan's Interior Ministry said that preliminary investigation suggested the bomber in Tuesday's attack was a foreigner. But Collins said there was "not much left of the bomber" and that there were not yet any indications he was a foreign fighter.
Although the bomber did not get closer than roughly 1 mile to the vice president, the attack highlighted an increasingly precarious security situation posed by the resurgent Taliban.
Five years after U.S.-led forces toppled their regime, Taliban-led militants have stepped up attacks. There were 139 suicide bombings last year, a fivefold increase over 2005, and a fresh wave of violence is expected this spring.
Asked if the Taliban were trying to send a message with the attack, Cheney said: "I think they clearly try to find ways to question the authority of the central government. Striking at Bagram with a suicide bomber, I suppose, is one way to do that. But it shouldn't affect our behavior at all."
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