A suicide bomber on foot killed and wounded some two dozen people outside the main U.S. military base in Afghanistan on Tuesday during a visit by Vice President Dick Cheney, officials said. The Taliban claimed responsibility and said Cheney was the target.
The blast happened near the first of several security gates outside the base at Bagram, north of the capital Kabul. Cheney's spokeswoman said he was fine, and the U.S. Embassy said the vice president later met with President Hamid Karzai in Kabul.
There were conflicting reports on the death toll. Provincial Gov. Abdul Jabar Taqwa said 20 people were killed, but NATO said initial reports indicated only three were killed, including one U.S. soldier and one coalition soldier. NATO said 23 were wounded. It was unclear why there was such a large discrepancy in the reports.
Maj. William Mitchell said it did not appear the explosion was intended as a threat to the vice president.
"He wasn't near the site of the explosion," Mitchell said. "He was safely within the base at the time of the explosion."
However, a purported Taliban spokesman, Qari Yousef Ahmadi, said Cheney was the target of the attack.
"We knew that Dick Cheney would be staying inside the base," Ahmadi told The Associated Press by telephone. "The attacker was trying to reach Cheney."
Cheney, who spent the night at Bagram, ate breakfast with U.S. soldiers Tuesday morning, Mitchell said. The vice president later left Bagram for talks with Karzai.
Cheney traveled to Afghanistan after a stop in Pakistan.
On Monday, Cheney -- underscoring growing alarm in the West at how militants have regained ground in Afghanistan and Pakistan -- sought Pakistani aid to help counter al Qaeda's efforts to regroup, officials said.
However, Pakistani President Gen. Pervez Musharraf insisted his forces have already "done the maximum" possible against extremists in their territory -- and insisted that other allies also shoulder responsibility in the U.S.-led war on terrorism.
Cheney, accompanied by CIA deputy director Steve Kappes, made an unannounced stop in Pakistan Monday en route to Afghanistan.
The vice president made no public comment in Pakistan, but a senior aide to Musharraf said they held detailed talks, including a one-on-one lunch of more than an hour.
"Cheney expressed U.S. apprehensions of regrouping of al Qaeda in the tribal areas and called for concerted efforts in countering the threat," Musharraf's office said.
He also "expressed serious U.S. concerns on the intelligence being picked up of an impending Taliban and al Qaeda 'spring offensive' against allied forces in Afghanistan," the statement said.
The Musharraf aide, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he is not an official spokesman, said the two men "exchanged ideas and suggestions" on improving cooperation against terrorism. However, he said Cheney made no specific demands.
U.S. and British officials have praised Pakistan publicly for its role in arresting al Qaeda suspects after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks in the United States and for a string of bloody operations against militants along the border.
Five years after the Taliban's ouster from power, however, militants have regained ground in Afghanistan and Pakistan.
There are signs of U.S. and NATO frustration at Musharraf's limited success in disrupting Pakistan-based Taliban fighters, who are expected to step up raids into Afghanistan in coming months, and in trapping Taliban and al Qaeda leaders suspected of holing up in tribal areas of Pakistan near the border.
The Bush administration wants Musharraf to be more aggressive in hunting al Qaeda operatives, and has raised the possibility that the U.S. Congress could cut aid to Pakistan unless it takes tougher steps.
Musharraf told Cheney that Pakistan "has done the maximum in the fight against terrorism and "joint efforts" were needed if the fight was to succeed.
"The president emphasized that most of the Taliban activities originated from Afghanistan and the solution of the issue also lies within that country," his office said. The more than 50,000 NATO and U.S. troops in Afghanistan as well as Afghan security forces also share responsibility for policing the border, Musharraf added.
Cheney and Karzai are expected to talk about security along the Afghan-Pakistan border and the expected increase in violence by militants as spring thaws mountain snows.
The United States has 27,000 troops in Afghanistan. About 14,000 are part of the 35,000-member NATO force commanded by U.S. Gen. Dan McNeill. At Bagram, Cheney met with McNeill and Maj. Gen. David M. Rodriguez -- the commander of U.S. troops -- to discuss military operations, the security situation and reconstruction, said Maj. William G. Mitchell, a U.S. military spokesman.