As Panetta visits, explosions kill nine in Afghanistan

McClatchy NewspapersMarch 14, 2012 

KANDAHAR, Afghanistan _ Two explosions rocked southern Afghanistan on Wednesday, killing nine Afghans, as Defense Secretary Leon Panetta made a tense visit to the region _ the first by a senior U.S. official since the weekend massacre of 16 Afghan civilians.

Panetta met with coalition and Afghan soldiers at a massive base in Helmand province on a pre-planned but unannounced visit that took on new urgency after a 38-year-old U.S. Army staff sergeant allegedly walked off a base in neighboring Kandahar province on Sunday and shot dead 16 villagers, including nine children.

As Panetta's aircraft was about to land at Camp Bastion, an Afghan reportedly drove a stolen vehicle onto the landing ramp and into a ditch, where it burst into flames. The driver's motive was unclear, but a statement from the U.S.-led military coalition said that the perpetrator was arrested and "at no time was the secretary or anyone on the aircraft in any danger from this incident."

Pentagon officials said that the suspect in the weekend shooting spree, who's in custody in Afghanistan, would be charged by Sunday. The identity of the soldier, who Panetta has said could face the death penalty, was being withheld, but officials said that his family, including two children, had been placed in protective custody.

A smattering of violence has hit southern Afghanistan since Sunday's attack. On Wednesday, eight civilians were killed when their vehicle was hit by a massive roadside bomb in the Marjah district of Helmand province, local officials said.

A statement from the media office of Helmand's governor, Mohammad Gulab Mangal, suggested the improvised explosive device had been planted in an attempt to resist a government-backed poppy eradication program currently under way in the province.

"Instead of disrupting the program, the bomb caused the death of innocent civilians," the statement said. "The explosion was so big that no one could identify the bodies."

In Kandahar, a soldier working for Afghanistan's intelligence agency, the National Directorate of Security, was killed in the provincial capital on Wednesday when explosives planted on a parked motorbike were set off by remote control, said Javed Faisal, a spokesman for the provincial government.

Two other security directorate soldiers and a civilian were wounded in the blast, which took place just after midday in the busy Shahre-naw district. They were rushed to Kandahar's Mirwais hospital and were reported to be in good condition.

"The explosion was very loud," said Sarfaraz Mallick, a biomedical engineer from India who was staying at a hotel half a mile away. "It shook the building and broke the glass of a room near mine."

He said multiple gunshots followed the explosion, apparently fired in the air by police to disperse a gathering crowd.

Afghan President Hamid Karzai denounced the attacks in Helmand and Kandahar as "heinous acts, carried out by the enemies of the people of Afghanistan, who do not want people to live in peace and security."

A day earlier, a delegation of high-level Afghan officials, including two of Karzai's brothers, came under fire from suspected Taliban insurgents as they visited the site of Sunday's killings in the Panjway district of Kandahar province.

(Stephenson is a McClatchy special correspondent. Special correspondent Ali Safi contributed from Kabul.)

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