Huge blast in Kabul as US military chief visits: witnesses

KABUL, June 26, 2010 (AFP) - A huge blast was heard in the Afghan capital Saturday as a US military chief arrived for meetings to explain the sacking of the US commander of foreign forces in the country, witnesses told AFP.

The blast took place in the centre of the city at 9.55 am (0525 GMT), witnesses said.

A spokesman for the interior ministry, Zemarai Bashery, said he had heard the blast, the cause of which was being investigated.

It seemed to have taken place near the foreign ministry, he said.

The blast happened after US Admiral Mike Mullen, chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, arrived in Kabul late Friday on a mission to reassure Afghan leaders following the sacking of the top commander in Kabul.

Mullen was set to meet Afghan President Hamid Karzai, the presidential office confirmed, after US General Stanley McChrystal was sacked for insubordination.

During his one-day visit, Mullen was also set to meet US and NATO officials, the US embassy said.

The blast, if confirmed as a bombing by Taliban-linked insurgents, would be the first attack in the capital since a peace conference held on June 2.

Sirens could be heard wailing across the city as emergency services and police rushed to the site, near the presidential palace, where Karzai was set to hold a press conference on drugs.

His meeting with Mullen was set for later in the day, during which Mullen was expected to explain the circumstances leading up to McChrystal's sacking and reassure Karzai that a change of leadership did not mean a change of tactics.

"My message will be clear. Nothing changes about our strategy. Nothing changes about the mission," said Mullen at a press conference in Washington before his departure for Afghanistan and Pakistan on Thursday.

General David Petraeus has been appointed as the new commander, a move that Defense Secretary Robert Gates said was the "best possible outcome to an awful situation".

Speaking at the same press conference as Mullen, Gates said there was progress in the Afghan war -- the administration's latest bid to defend the mission as foreign troop casualties hit record highs.

NATO announced overnight the death of another alliance soldier following an insurgent attack in eastern Afghanistan, bringing to three the number killed on Friday.

June has become the deadliest month of the war since it began in late 2001, with 84 foreign troop deaths, according to an AFP tally based on that kept by icasualties.org.

This year 304 foreign soldiers have been killed -- already the second highest annual total in the war -- under McChrystal's strategy to pour tens of thousands of extra troops into Afghanistan to take the fight to the Taliban.

McChrystal won early praise for a drop in civilian casualties as he attempted to win popular trust, at the same time working hard to bring Karzai on board.

His dismissal was met with dismay in Kabul, where Afghans and foreign diplomats praised his efforts to change the course of the war.

There are 140,000 troops in Afghanistan, with the number set to peak at 150,000 by August, in hopes to force an end to the insurgency with a surge of efforts in the southern province of Kandahar, the Taliban's heartland.

Obama said in Washington that Petraeus, well regarded for his role in turning around the Iraq war, would be able to hit the ground running due to his work on Afghanistan as head of Central Command, which oversees both war zones.

British Prime Minister David Cameron said meanwhile Friday he wanted troops home from Afghanistan before the next British general elections, due by 2015.

"We can't be there for another five years, having been there for nine years already," Cameron, who took office last month, told Sky News television, on the sidelines of a Group of Eight summit.

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