Suicide Bomber Attacks Italian Base in Afghanistan

KABUL, Afghanistan -- A suicide bomber blew up an explosives-packed car at the gates of an Italian military base in Herat Monday and a second explosion ripped through a busy downtown intersection in the normally peaceful western city, officials said. At least four Afghans were killed.

Five Italian soldiers were wounded, one of them gravely, Italian Defense Minister Ignazio La Russa said.

Herat, western Afghanistan's largest city, is one of seven areas scheduled to be handed over to Afghan control in July as the first step toward transitioning nationwide security responsibility from international forces to Afghan troops by 2014. Attacks are rare inside the city, though there are a number of volatile districts on its outskirts.

Attacks around Afghanistan have been increasing since the Taliban announced their spring offensive, with strikes on Kabul, the main southern city of Kandahar and in the north.

In south on Monday, an Afghan wearing an army uniform shot and killed a NATO service member, the alliance said. NATO did not say exactly where the attack took place and it was not immediately clear whether the assailant was an Afghan soldier or a militant who had donned an army uniform to infiltrate NATO defenses. Previously, there have been cases of both.

NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen said that plans to hand over control of seven areas to Afghan soldiers in July remained on course, despite new insurgent attacks.

Premier Silvio Berlusconi offered his "encouragement" to all Italian soldiers following Monday's attack, but a prominent member of Berlusconi's Freedom party, Margherita Bonniver, said the Herat attack should speed efforts to negotiate a pullout.

"A political solution will have to be effective to permit the international contingent to make an agreed upon withdrawal in the briefest time possible," said Bonniver.

One Afghan policeman and three civilians were killed in the explosions in Herat, said Raouf Ahmadi, a spokesman for the regional police commander. He said more than 20 people were wounded. One of those wounded in the strike on the military base was a man from Slovenia, La Russa said, without explaining if he worked on the base or was simply nearby.

Gunfire followed the attack at the Italian base, but Ahmadi said it was from guards shooting out from the compound. Officials had earlier reported a gunbattle between militants and Italian soldiers. The area was calm by midday.

The second explosion was about a mile from the base at an intersection packed with businesses and traffic. Ahmadi said most of the casualties were from the second blast but did not provide more details.

A NATO spokesman confirmed the attack near the Italian base. British army Maj. Tim James said initial reports were of a car bomb that exploded outside without breaching the defense of the base. Gunfire was also reported.

The NATO base in Herat houses an Italian provincial reconstruction team, a collection of military and sometimes civilian workers who are tasked with helping build up local government and infrastructure.

In Kabul, NATO officials apologized for an airstrike on Saturday that inadvertently killed a group of women and children, saying that they thought there were only insurgents inside the targeted compound when they ordered the strike.

Accidental deaths of civilians from coalition military operations are an ongoing source of tension between Afghans and NATO. The international coalition has sharply reduced the number of civilians killed in its operations but Afghan officials say any civilian deaths from allied strikes are unacceptable.

Southwest regional commander U.S. Marine Maj. Gen. John Toolan issued an official apology early Monday morning on behalf of top coalition commanders Gen. David Petraeus and Lt. Gen. David Rodriguez for the killing of civilians in Saturday's attack.

"I want to offer my sincere apologies for the nine civilians who were killed during the incident in Nawzad district, Helmand province," Toolan said. The Afghan government has said 14 civilians were killed, including at least 10 children and two women.