A Taliban suicide bomber rammed a vehicle loaded with explosives into an armored NATO bus Saturday on a busy thoroughfare in Kabul, killing 17 people, including a dozen Americans, in the deadliest strike against the U.S.-led coalition in the Afghan capital since the war began.
The blast occurred on the same day that a man wearing an Afghan army uniform killed three Australian soldiers and an Afghan interpreter in the south -- attacks that show the resiliency of the insurgency and are likely to raise new doubts about the unpopular 10-year-old war and the Western strategy of trying to talk peace with the Taliban.
A spokesman for the fundamentalist Islamic movement, which was ousted in the 2001 invasion for its affiliation with al-Qaida, claimed responsibility for the Kabul attack, saying the bomber had used 1,540 pounds of explosives.
The Taliban and related groups have staged more than a dozen major attacks in Kabul this year, including seven since June, in an apparent campaign to weaken confidence in the Afghan government as it prepares to take over its own security ahead of a 2014 deadline for the United States and other NATO countries to withdraw their troops or move them into support roles.
Underscoring the difficulties ahead, the brazen assault occurred just hours after top Afghan and Western officials met in the heart of Kabul to discuss the second phase of shifting security responsibilities to Afghan forces in all or part of 17 of the country's 34 provinces. Afghans already have the lead in the Afghan capital.
Heavy black smoke poured from the burning wreckage of an armored personnel carrier, known as a Rhino, in Kabul after the bomber struck. The bus had been sandwiched in the middle of a convoy of mine-resistant military vehicles when it was hit along a four-lane highway often used by foreign military trainers in the southwestern part of Kabul.
U.S. soldiers wept as they pulled bodies from the debris, said Noor Ahmad, a witness at the scene. One coalition soldier was choking inside the burned bus, he said.
"The bottom half of his body was burned," Ahmad said.
NATO said five of its service members and eight civilian contractors working for the coalition died in the attack.
A U.S. defense official, speaking on condition of anonymity to release the information before a formal announcement, said all 13 were Americans. However, Lt. Col. Christian Lemay, a Canadian defense spokesman, told the Associated Press that one Canadian soldier was among the troops killed. The discrepancy could not immediately be reconciled.
It was the deadliest single attack against the U.S.-led coalition across the country since the Taliban shot down a NATO helicopter on Aug. 6 in an eastern Afghan province, killing 30 U.S. troops, most elite Navy SEALs, and eight Afghans.
In Canberra, the Defense Department said three Australian soldiers and their Afghan interpreter were killed in the attack in southern Kandahar province, and seven Australian soldiers were wounded.
The Australian Broadcasting Corp. said the attack occurred during a morning parade at a forward patrol base, and the gunman wearing an Afghan army uniform was later killed.
Just a day earlier, the Pentagon issued a progress report saying that the number of enemy-initiated attacks in Afghanistan was trending downward.