Afghan bombers strike during US official's visit

KABUL (AP) - Militants staged two suicide attacks that killed at least 18 people on Saturday, the first full day of United States Defence Secretary Chuck Hagel's visit to Afghanistan. They were a fresh reminder of the challenges posed by insurgents to the US-led Nato force as it hands over the country's security to the Afghans.

"This attack was a message to him," Taleban spokesman Zabiullah Mujahid said of Mr Hagel, in an email to reporters about the attack on the country's Defence Ministry in Kabul.

Mr Hagel was nowhere near that explosion, but heard it across the city. He told reporters travelling with him that he wasn't sure what it was when he heard the explosion.

"We're in a war zone. I've been in war, so shouldn't be surprised when a bomb goes off or there's an explosion," said Mr Hagel, a Vietnam War veteran. Asked what his message to the Taleban would be, he said that the US was going to continue to work with its allies to insure that the Afghan people have the ability to develop their own country and democracy.

In the first attack, a suicide bomber on a bicycle struck outside the Afghan Defence Ministry early on Saturday morning, just as employees were arriving for work.

About a half hour later, another suicide bomber hit a joint Nato and Afghan patrol near a police checkpoint in Khost city, the capital of Khost province in eastern Afghanistan, said provincial spokesman Baryalai Wakman.

Nine people were killed in the bombing at the ministry, and an Afghan policeman and eight civilians, who were mostly children, died in the blast in Khost, Afghan officials said.

Mr Hagel's first visit to Kabul as Pentagon chief comes as the US and Afghanistan grapple with a number of disputes, from the aborted handover of a main detention facility - cancelled at the last moment late Friday as a deal for the transfer broke down - to Afghan President Hamid Karzai's demand that US special operations forces withdraw from Wardak province just outside Kabul over allegations of abuse.