KABUL, Afghanistan — In one of the deadliest days this year for international forces in Afghanistan, three NATO troops and two coalition civilians were killed Saturday in the southern region in a suicide bombing that also killed two Afghans and narrowly missed killing the governor of the province, local officials said.
The attack came at about 11 a.m. in the Zabul provincial capital, Qalat, as a convoy carrying Gov. Mohammad Ashraf Nasery was passing the base of the local NATO provincial reconstruction team, said the province’s spokesman, Sharif Nasiri.
Local Afghan officials didn’t have a firm count of the NATO casualties, he said. But the U.S. Embassy in Kabul issued a statement Saturday night confirming that there had been American and Afghan casualties in a suicide attack in Qalat, and NATO issued a separate statement that said three of its troops had been killed by an improvised bomb in southern Afghanistan along with two civilian coalition workers.
It was unknown how many of the dead were American; NATO, as is customary, declined to release the nationalities of the dead. Americans are the primary international force in Zabul.
NATO also reported Saturday that a U.S. civilian worker was killed in a separate insurgent attack in eastern Afghanistan.
The past winter had been an unusually quiet one in Afghanistan for international troops. But with the return of warm weather, insurgents have been stepping up attacks, with the Pentagon reporting the combat deaths of six U.S. troops in March. Five other Americans died in a March 11 helicopter crash that the Pentagon says is still under investigation. Four other Americans died of causes not related to combat, according to Pentagon casualty reports. No combat deaths were reported in the first five days of April.
On Wednesday, insurgents attacked a courthouse and adjacent buildings in western Afghanistan, leaving 44 civilians, soldiers and police officers dead. None of the casualties were coalition forces, however.
In Saturday’s attack in Zabul, the governor — who was traveling to a dedication ceremony for a school near the NATO base — was unharmed, but a doctor from a nearby hospital was killed, as well as a student, Nasiri said. The NATO base, hospital and school are adjacent to one another.
One of the governor’s bodyguards and two Afghan civilians were injured and taken to the hospital for treatment, Nasiri said.
The attack coincided with the unannounced arrival of Army Gen. Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, who came to Afghanistan to assess what training Afghan forces will need after the combat role of the U.S.-led NATO force ends in 2014. That determination will help set the number of American troops that the United States will assign to Afghanistan after 2014. Dempsey was not near the attack.
The Taliban claimed credit for the Zabul bombing on their website. The website said that 13 foreign troops were killed, but Taliban counts of coalition casualties are often exaggerated.
Provincial reconstruction teams — widely called PRTs — were established by the U.S.-led coalitions in Afghanistan and Iraq to help local governments rebuild. They include a mix of troops, diplomats and experts on topics such as agriculture, civil engineering, law enforcement and the various functions of local governments.
Zabul is among the most restive provinces along the Pakistan border, though it hasn’t seen as much fighting as its neighbor to the south, Kandahar. The province is home to several U.S. bases, including FOB Apache, which Americans from the 555th Engineer Brigade from Joint Base Lewis-McChord near Tacoma, Wash., have been expanding in recent weeks to accommodate troops displaced by the closing or reduction of other bases as part of the U.S. drawdown of forces.