Hours after President Obama lifted off from Afghanistan, Taliban forces staged yet another brazen attack in the capital city of Kabul, attacking a compound housing hundreds of foreign workers including UN staff, EU police trainers and many private security contractors.
"I was walking to school when I saw a very big explosion. A car exploded and flames went very high into the air," student Mohammad Wali told the Associated Press. "Then I saw a body of one of my classmates lying on the street. I knew it was a suicide attack and ran away. I was so afraid." Several other students and teachers were among the injured, said the Interior Ministry, which put the total toll at seven, excluding the assailants.
In a statement released shortly after the attack, a Taliban representative said the attack was in response to Obama's visit and to the long-term strategic partnership deal he signed with Afghan President Hamid Karzai, a pact that sets out a long-term U.S. role after most foreign combat troops leave by the end of 2014.
"This attack was to make clear our reaction to Obama's trip to Afghanistan. The message was that instead of signing of a strategic partnership deal with Afghanistan, he should think about taking his troops out from Afghanistan and leave it to Afghans to rebuild their country," Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid told Reuters by telephone from an undisclosed location.
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Suicide attackers launched a dawn attack on the outskirts of Kabul, killing seven, just hours after US President Barack Obama visited the Afghan capital and claimed that the last three years of fighting had broken the Taliban's momentum.
Witnesses said at least four attackers were involved, shrouded in all-enveloping burqas usually worn by Afghan women but often adopted by insurgents to hide weapons and reduce scrutiny as they approach a target.
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Wednesday's attack was the latest in a recent surge of violence after the Taliban announced they had begun their usual "spring offensive", and that they had suspended tentative steps towards peace talks with the United States.
Such incidents raise troubling questions about the readiness of Afghan forces to take over when militants remain able to stage high-profile attacks, even when already tight security had been beefed up even further for Obama's visit.
Insurgents staged coordinated attacks in Kabul last month, paralyzing the city's centre and diplomatic area for 18 hours.
The Taliban also claimed responsibility for those attacks, but U.S. and Afghan officials blamed the militant, al Qaeda-linked Haqqani network.
Obama's visit was clearly an election-year event.
He spoke to U.S. troops during a stay in Afghanistan of roughly six hours and emphasized bin Laden's demise, an event his re-election campaign has touted as one of his most important achievements in office.
"Not only were we able to drive al Qaeda out of Afghanistan, but slowly and systematically we have been able to decimate the ranks of al Qaeda, and a year ago we were able to finally bring Osama bin Laden to justice," Obama said to cheers.
But even as he asserted in his speech that there was a "clear path" to fulfilling the U.S. mission in Afghanistan and made his strongest claim yet that the defeat of al Qaeda was "within reach", he warned of further hardship ahead.
"I recognize that many Americans are tired of war ... But we must finish the job we started in Afghanistan and end this war responsibly," he said at Bagram airbase, where only months ago thousands of Afghans rioted after U.S. troops accidentally burned copies of the Koran, the Muslim holy book.
That incident, and the killing of 17 Afghan civilians by a rogue U.S. soldier weeks later, plunged already tense relations to their lowest point in years.
While speaking in broad terms of "difficult days ahead", Obama did not address some of the thorniest challenges.
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