KABUL, Afghanistan (AP) - Insurgents launched a brazen pre-dawn assault Wednesday against the giant U.S.-run Bagram Air Field, killing an American contractor and wounding nine troops in the second Taliban strike at NATO forces in and around the capital in as many days.
Small groups of suicide bombers - some wearing uniforms that appeared to match those of U.S. or NATO forces - tried to storm the base's defenses, while others fired rockets, grenades and guns over the walls into the base, said Maj. Virginia McCabe, a spokeswoman for U.S. forces at Bagram.
No insurgents made it inside the base, but blasts and gunbattles raged for eight hours as U.S. soldiers hunted the attackers down in the surrounding fields north of Kabul, she said. At least 10 of the insurgents died, according to McCabe.
Five of them were killed by air strikes, said Lutf Rahman Reshad, an Afghan police official in Bagram district. McCabe said that helicopters were out in a supporting role but she could not confirm if air strikes killed any of the insurgents or even if any of them fired. U.S. forces said the base was undamaged except for "minor" damage to one building not considered strategically important. There were no details about the dead contractor.
The Bagram attack came a day after a suicide bomber struck a U.S. convoy in Kabul, killing 18 people. The dead included five American troops and a Canadian, making it the most lethal attack on NATO in the Afghan capital in eight months.
The back-to-back assaults underscore the militants' intent to strike at the heart of the U.S.-led mission. The attacks appear to be part of an offensive announced by the Taliban this month to target NATO forces, foreign diplomats, contractors and Afghan government officials.
For its part, NATO is currently preparing for a major operation to restore order in the turbulent south. In the latest violence in the south, a NATO service member died in a bomb attack Wednesday, the military alliance said in a statement. It did not provide further details.
The Taliban claimed responsibility for both the Kabul bombing and the attack at Bagram, 30 miles (50 kilometers) north of Kabul. Taliban spokesman Zabiullah Mujahid said 20 suicide attackers were involved in the Bagram attack.
McCabe said the number of attackers was unclear but that it was somewhere around 20 or 30. An Afghan provincial police commander, Gen. Abdul Rahman Sayedkhail, said the attack began when U.S. guards spotted would-be attackers in a car just outside the base.
The Americans opened fire, triggering a gunbattle in which at least one militant triggered his suicide vest. Running gunbattles broke out as U.S. troops hunted down the other attackers. Four of the slain insurgents had intended to be suicide bombers, U.S. forces said in a statement.
Residents of the area discovered one of the would-be suicide bombers hiding in a garden, said Reshad, the Afghan police official. They called police, but the attacker lobbed grenades at the officers when they arrived. The police fired at the man, who then detonated his explosives vest.
The insurgent was wearing what appeared to be an American military uniform, Reshad said. The militants' use of uniforms recall an attack in Iraq three years ago. On Jan. 20, 2007 a group of Shiite insurgents wearing American uniforms and carrying American weapons slipped into an Iraqi police compound in Karbala, kidnapped four U.S. soldiers and then killed them about 25 miles away.
A fifth American soldier was killed in a firefight at the compound. Wednesday was not the first time militants have attacked Bagram. In February 2007, a suicide bombing killed more than 20 people at a Bagram security gate while then-Vice President Dick Cheney was inside the base.
Cheney was unhurt but the Taliban said he was the target. Bagram Air Field - the control hub for U.S. forces in Afghanistan - is a sprawling complex of more than 5,000 acres (2,000 hectares) filled with offices, barracks, runways and weaponry in the shadow of the Hindu Kush mountains.
The base operates almost like a small town, with paved roads, bus service and hospital facilities. The U.S. established Bagram Air Field on the site of a former Soviet base, though it has greatly expanded from that installation. The hulls of old Soviet tanks can be seen in the fields surrounding the base, and much of that area is still mined from that era. The base has exterior and interior security perimeters. McCabe said the insurgents did not penetrate the exterior perimeter.
Tuesday was the deadliest day of the year for U.S. forces in Afghanistan. Seven Americans were killed, including the five in the Kabul bombing and two others who died in separate attacks in the south. U.S., NATO and Afghan forces are gearing up for a major operation to secure Kandahar, the biggest city in the south and the former Taliban headquarters before they were ousted from power in 2001.
American officials believe control of Kandahar is the key to stabilizing the Taliban' southern heartland. NATO's senior civilian representative in Afghanistan said recent Taliban attacks have not delayed the Kandahar operation or any of NATO's key goals over the next few months.
"The overall campaign is on track" Mark Sedwill told reporters. He stressed that the Kandahar operation will not be a quick-strike offensive like this past winter's push into the town of Marjah in neighboring Helmand province. Since the Taliban is not in complete control of Kandahar city and its surrounding villages, the first stage of the mission is meetings with local leaders, he said.
Then NATO forces expect to launch a series of operations over weeks or months to establish security. "I believe that by the end of this year we will be able to demonstrate that we have the initiative and the momentum is with us," Sedwill said.