KANDAHAR, Afghanistan (Reuters) - A powerful car bomb exploded outside a NATO base in Afghanistan’s southern Kandahar city Wednesday, destroying scores of vehicles but causing no casualties, officials said.
The blast was the latest in a string of attacks in Kandahar in recent months as militants step up their campaign of violence ahead of a major U.S.-led offensive due to begin in the coming weeks aimed at driving the Taliban from their spiritual home.
The bomb, which had been placed inside a parked vehicle in a parking lot, exploded around noon local time, destroying 11 cars and 50 motorbikes, the Interior Ministry said in a statement.
Witnesses said they saw smoke and dust rising into the air above the city.
“Fortunately, there were no casualties caused by this explosion,” the Interior Ministry said.
A spokesman for NATO-led forces in Kabul said the explosion happened just outside the gates of Camp Nathan Smith, a NATO base inside the city, but said there were no foreign troop casualties.
The base is home to the Canadian Provincial Reconstruction Team (PRT), a military-led effort for development in the area.
NATO forces are planning the biggest military offensive of the nearly nine-year-old war in coming months in and around Kandahar, the biggest city in the south and heartland of the Taliban movement.
Under the plans, expected to unfold next month, about 8,000 U.S. and Canadian troops will secure rural areas around the city while a newly-deployed brigade of 3,500 U.S. troops escorts 6,700 Afghan police into urban areas. In all, the offensive will involve some 23,000 NATO ground troops and Afghan police.
The offensive is the cornerstone of a “surge” strategy by U.S. President Barack Obama, employing the bulk of the 30,000 extra troops he is dispatching to Afghanistan this year to turn the tide against a mounting Taliban insurgency.
NATO commanders have been playing down the military aspect of the Kandahar operation, insisting in public that the emphasis will be on political efforts, but it will still be the biggest offensive of the war by far, and the Taliban have vowed to fight.
The Taliban announced their own offensive from May 20 against the government, foreign forces and diplomats in response to NATO’s plans and the last few weeks have seen a surge in attacks and assassinations in the city of about 500,000 people.
Bomb strikes have occurred almost daily, insurgents have carried out several major suicide bombings and raids over the past few weeks, as well as targeted political assassinations.
Saturday, militants launched a rocket attack followed up by a daring ground attack on Afghanistan’s largest foreign military base just outside Kandahar city.
Although insurgents were not able to penetrate the heavily fortified and sprawling air base, a number of NATO personnel and civilian workers were wounded in the assault.
Additional reporting by Jonathon Burch in KABUL; Editing by David Fox