KABUL, Afghanistan — Nine foreign nationals and their Afghan driver were killed Tuesday when a suicide bomber rammed an explosive-packed car into their mini-bus near the Kabul airport, government officials said. Two Afghan bystanders were also killed, said a statement from Afghanistan’s interior ministry.
A spokesman for the Afghan insurgent group Hezb-e-Islami claimed responsibility for the attack, which it said was carried out by a young woman. Zubair Sediqi told McClatchy in a phone interview that the bombing was in retaliation for the crude YouTube video that insults the prophet Mohammad, Islam’s most revered figure.
Eleven Afghan civilians were wounded in the blast and taken to the hospital, the Interior Ministry said. It said the deceased foreign nationals worked for an airline company.
A statement from Afghan President Hamid Karzai said eight of the dead were South African and one was from Kyrgyzstan. Sediqi claimed they were all U.S. citizens. “They were American intelligence agents,” said Sediqi.
Tuesday’s attack underscores how perceived insults against the Prophet Muhammad can be used as justification for violent acts. The 14-minute video, “Innocence of the Muslims,” has been cited as the cause for attacks on U.S. embassies in Eygpt, Yemen and Sudan.
Reaction in Afghanistan has been muted, however. Afghan officials took steps to block access to the video on YouTube, and religious leaders in Kabul and the country’s second-largest city, Kandahar, have urged people to show restraint.
A demonstration outside a U.S. military base in Kabul on Monday saw outbreaks of violence and minor injuries to a small number of policemen and protesters. However, most demonstrations against the video have been relatively peaceful.
Tuesday’s suicide bombing – which took place around 6.40am – also underscores the apparent ease with which insurgent groups can penetrate security in Kabul, supposedly the most secure city in Afghanistan. It follows an audacious attack by Taliban insurgents dressed in American army uniforms that penetrated security at a heavily-guarded U.S.-led coalition base in restive Helmand province. Two U.S. marines were killed and at least six Harrier jets were destroyed.
The Taliban also claimed the attack on the coalition base at Helmand was in response to the video.
Describing Tuesday’s suicide attack at Kabul, Abdul Rahim, 40, told McClatchy he was selling juice and energy drinks from his cart when the bomb went off less than 50 yards away.
“I heard a powerful explosion, and the area was covered with dust. I saw pieces of the cars everywhere,” Rahim said. “It was early morning and there weren’t many people around, otherwise the casualties would have been much higher.”
A McClatchy reporter at the scene saw the twisted remains of the mini-bus, which was destroyed almost beyond recognition. Security officials arrived quickly and cordoned off the bomb site, but at least four bodies were clearly visible to reporters.
Several of the dead appeared to be Westerners, including a man and a woman wearing Western clothing. The clothing of some victims appeared to have been ripped off by the force of the explosion, and several victims had blast wounds to their face and body. A severed pair of legs lay near the mini-bus.
The suicide bomber’s car was almost completely destroyed, the engine thrown more than 20 yards from the vehicle. Security officials collected body parts and placed them in plastic bags.
An Interior Ministry spokesman told McClatchy that he could not confirm if the bomber had been a woman. He said that one of the bomber’s legs had been found and had been sent for forensic testing.
Perhaps the most disturbing aspect of the attack, aside from the carnage at the scene, was that Hezb-e-Islami – one of the three major Afghan-based insurgent groups, whose political wing is the largest bloc in Afghanistan’s Parliament – had previously denounced suicide bombing and refused to use it as a tactic.
Sediqi, the Hezb-e-Islamic spokesman, said that his organization still rejected suicide attacks that targeted civilians, but “We support suicide bombers against the Americans.”
“Of course we support killing Americans,” Sediqi said. “We killed Americans, and we take responsibility for that.”
Stephenson and Safi are McClatchy special correspondents.