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Afghanistan: Two suicide bombers strike on first day of Hagel's visit

About 20 people were killed in two suicide bombings in Afghanistan Saturday. A Taliban spokesman said the attacks were a message for Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel, who is in Afghanistan for his first official visit.

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Regarding Wardak, Karzai set a deadline for Monday for the pullout of the US commandos, over allegations that joint US and Afghan patrols engaged in a pattern of torture, kidnappings and summary executions.

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"Each of those accusations has been answered and we're not involved," said Brigadier Adam Findlay, NATO's deputy chief of staff of operations. "There are obviously atrocities occurring there, but it's not linked to us, and the kind of atrocities we are seeing, fingers cut off, other mutilations to bodies, is just not the way we work."

Findlay said NATO officials have made provisional plans to withdraw special operations forces, if Karzai sticks to his edict after meetings this weekend with Hagel and top military commander in Afghanistan Gen. Joseph Dunford.

"What we've got to try to do is go to a middle ground that meets the president's frustration," but also keeps insurgents from using Wardak as a staging ground to launch attacks on the capital, Findlay said. "That plan would be that you would put in your more conventional forces into Wardak," to replace the special operators and maintain security, he said.

NATO officials see the weekend violence as part of the Taliban's coming campaign for the spring fighting season. "There's a series of attacks that have started as the snow is thawing. We had a potential insider attack yesterday ... and there's been a number of attacks on the border," Findlay explained.

The suspected insider attack occurred in Kapisa province in eastern Afghanistan several hours before Hagel arrived Friday. Three men presumed to be Afghan soldiers forced their way onto a US base and opened fire, killing one US civilian contractor and wounding four US soldiers, according to a senior US military official.

The official said investigators were "95 percent certain it was an insider attack," because the three men came from the Afghan side of the joint US-Afghan base, and rammed an Afghan army Humvee through a checkpoint dividing the base, before jumping out and opening fire on the Americans with automatic weapons. All three attackers were killed.

The official spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak publicly.

The Taliban said it was not behind the Tagab base attack, and has not yet weighed in on the attack in Khost, but the group claimed responsibility for the morning attack at the ministry shortly after it happened.

Pentagon spokesman George Little said Hagel was in a briefing at a US-led military coalition facility in another part of the city when the explosion occurred. He said the briefing continued without interruption.

Azimi, the defense ministry spokesman, said the bomber on a bicycle struck just before 9 a.m. local time about 30 meters (yards) from the main gate of the ministry.

A man at the scene, Abdul Ghafoor, said the blast rocked the entire area.

"I saw dead bodies and wounded victims lying everywhere," Ghafoor told the Associated Press. "Then random shooting started and we escaped from the area."

The ministry said at least nine civilians were killed and others were wounded.

Reporters traveling with Hagel were in a briefing when they heard the explosion. They were moved to a lower floor of the same building as US facilities in downtown Kabul were locked down as a security precaution.

Associated Press writers Lolita C. Baldor and Heidi Vogt contributed to this report from Kabul.

Dozier can be followed on Twitter at: http://twitter.com/KimberlyDozier

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