Two powerful bombings rocked the southern Afghan city of Kandahar on Thursday, killing three foreigners and three Afghan soldiers, according to President Hamid Karzai's half brother. Meanwhile, four German soldiers were killed in fighting in the north.
NATO forces are gearing up for a major operation this summer in Kandahar — the largest city in the Taliban-ridden south and the birthplace of the hardline Islamist movement.
But the burst of violence in widely separated areas of the country underscores the reach of the Taliban beyond their southern homeland, even as the U.S. sends more forces to ramp up the war.
The more powerful of the two explosions in Kandahar occurred after sundown when a suicide bomber detonated his explosives-laden vehicle at the inner security barrier of a compound shared by several Western companies, according to Ahmad Wali Karzai, the president's half brother and the main power broker in southern Afghanistan.
Karzai, chairman of the local provincial council, told The Associated Press he did not know the nationalities of the three foreign dead, but Britain's domestic news agency Press Association quoted the British Foreign Office as saying it was looking into reports that several British nationals had been killed.
At least 16 people were wounded, including one foreigner and four in critical condition, according to Dr. Mohammed Hashim of the city's Mirwais Hospital.
The blast blew out windows as far as 2.5 miles away, including those at Karzai's home. The compound includes the offices of the international contracting company Louis Berger Group, the Afghanistan Stabilization Initiative and the aid contracting company Chemonics International.
Earlier Thursday, a remotely detonated car bomb went off in front of the Noor Jehan Hotel, which includes the offices of several foreign news organizations, wounding eight people and shattering windows in the four-story building.
Kandahar, with a population of about 500,000, has been shaken repeatedly by attacks in recent weeks. On March 13, a suicide squad detonated bombs at a newly fortified prison, police headquarters and two other locations in a failed attempt to free Taliban prisoners. At least 30 people died in the blasts.
The Germans were killed when a rocket slammed into their "Eagle" armored vehicle during heavy fighting Thursday with Taliban militants in Baghlan province about 120 miles north of the capital, Kabul, the German Defense Ministry said. Five other German soldiers were wounded.
It was the biggest single-day loss of life suffered by the Germans since June 2003, when four soldiers were killed and 29 wounded in a bombing near Kabul airport.
Baghlan provincial police spokesman Habib Rahman said three Afghan policemen were also killed in Thursday's fighting, which included airstrikes and heavy weapons.
Later Thursday, five Afghans working for the U.N. Office for Projects were missing after insurgents carjacked their vehicle in Baghlan, the U.N. mission said.
The German deaths were the second blow this month to the 4,300-member German force, the third largest contingent in Afghanistan after the United States and Britain.
Three German soldiers were killed in a firefight April 2 in Kunduz province. German troops accidentally killed six Afghan soldiers in the same battle.
German troops to stay
The spike in bloodshed has fueled opposition to the Afghan mission among the German public, which supported the operation when it was promoted as a reconstruction and humanitarian effort. Support has dropped as German soldiers become involved more deeply in combat.
On Wednesday, Germany's Stern magazine reported that a record 62 percent of the 1,004 Germans polled by the Forsa Institute want to bring the troops home. The margin of error for the survey taken April 8 and 9 was plus or minus 3 percentage points.
At least 43 German soldiers have died in Afghanistan since Germany sent troops here in 2002.
Despite the growing opposition, German Chancellor Angela Merkel said last week she still believes her country's soldiers are needed in Afghanistan but will not stay a day longer than necessary.
"The soldiers fell in a difficult deployment," Merkel said Thursday during a visit to San Francisco. "It is a difficult deployment, but it serves the security of our country."
Merkel added that "we must continue this deployment."
Northern Afghanistan, where the Germans are based, was relatively peaceful when the German force was sent there in 2002. But fighting increased last year after NATO opened a new supply route from Central Asian countries to the north, hoping to avoid ambushes that plagued roads coming in from Pakistan to the south and east.
The rise in violence, especially in the south, has led to a sharp increase in the number of Afghan civilians wounded by roadside bombs, the international Red Cross said Thursday.
The Red Cross said a hospital it supports in Kandahar treated nearly 40 percent more patients wounded by bombs in the first two months of the year compared with the same period in 2009.
At least 2,412 Afghan civilians were killed in fighting last year, an increase of 14 percent from 2008, according to the United Nations. About two-thirds of the civilian deaths were a result of actions initiated by the insurgents. The percentage of civilian deaths attributed to NATO and Afghan government forces fell.