A suicide bomber wearing an explosive vest killed at least eight American civilians, most of them CIA officers, at a remote base in south-eastern Afghanistan on Wednesday, according to NATO officials and former U.S. intelligence officials.

The attack at the CIA base, Forward Operating Base Chapman, in Khost province appeared to be the single deadliest episode for the spy agency in the eight years since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. It also dealt a significant blow to the often insular, tight-knit organisation, which has lost only 90 officers in the line of duty since its founding in 1947.

One former CIA official said that eight agency employees had been killed, but cautioned that early reports from the field were often incorrect. The official, who spoke anonymously because the agency had not commented publicly on the attack, said the final number of dead could be higher because at least six American civilians were wounded. It was unclear how many of the dead were full-time CIA officers and how many were contract employees.

A CIA spokesman did not return calls seeking comment. Previously, the spy agency has revealed that four of its officers have been killed since the Sept. 11 attacks, all of them memorialised with stars carved into a marble wall at CIA headquarters in Langley.

The attack occurred as the agency has steadily increased its presence in Afghanistan and Pakistan over the past year, sometimes sending operatives to remote bases instead of to heavily fortified embassies in Kabul and Islamabad, Pakistan.

In recent years, the CIA has been at the forefront of U.S. counterterrorism operations in South Asia, launching a steady barrage of drone attacks against Al-Qaeda and Taliban operatives in the mountains along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border.

Khost province, bordering Pakistan, has been a prime area for militants with links to the Taliban and Al-Qaeda who use Pakistan’s lawless tribal areas as a base to stage their insurgency. There have been frequent attacks against U.S. bases in Khost, but rarely, if ever, do suicide bombers make it past a main gate. Wednesday’s attack was particularly audacious because the bomber managed to breach a secure base assigned to potentially sensitive operations.

Though details of the attack remained sketchy, a NATO official said the bomber managed to elude security and reach an area near the base’s gym. It was not clear whether the bomber, who died in the blast, entered the gym.

Even by the standards of a war with a rising number of American and NATO casualties, the attack was an especially deadly one for American civilians in Afghanistan, a group that includes a growing number of intelligence operatives and contractors employed in reconstruction and counterinsurgency.

U.S. bases in Khost, particularly Camp Salerno, one of the largest in the country, have been the targets of frequent attacks. Dozens of Afghan labourers have been killed in bombings over the past several years.

In May, a suicide attacker exploded a car bomb near the main gate, killing seven civilians and wounding 21. The bombing took place a day after a coordinated Taliban attack inside the city of Khost, the provincial capital, that left at least seven civilians and eight insurgents dead.

In June, a man riding a motorcycle detonated explosives near a densely crowded intersection in the city, killing seven Afghan civilians and wounding 44, including seven children.

Last week, heavily armed insurgents entered a police headquarters in Gardez, to the north of Khost, and battled Afghan and U.S. security forces for more than three hours. That attack was attributed to the Taliban network run by Sirajuddin Haqqani, which bases itself just south in Pakistan’s tribal area of North Waziristan.

In recent weeks, U.S. officials have stepped up pressure on Pakistan to root out the Haqqani network, whose fighters pose one of the greatest threats to U.S. forces and hold sway over large parts of Afghanistan, including Paktika, Paktia and Khost provinces.

Pakistani officials and diplomats have said the demand was rebuffed by the Pakistani military, which is already fighting Taliban militants who threaten Pakistan’s government and which has long considered the Haqqanis assets to influence the future shape of Afghanistan once the Americans leave the region. — © 2009 The New York Times News Service

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