KANDAHAR: A suicide car bomber attacked a NATO airbase in southern Afghanistan just hours after the US Defence Secretary left Thursday, killing an American soldier and two civilians, officials said.
Taliban insurgents claimed responsibility for the attack in a text message to AFP.
The death of the American soldier and the wounding of three others in the blast was announced by Pentagon chief Leon Panetta at a press conference in Kabul later with Afghan President Hamid Karzai.
Seventeen Afghan civilians and one Afghan army soldier were also injured as the bomber detonated his vehicle near the huge International Security Assistance Force airbase in Kandahar city in southern Afghanistan, police said.
"The suicide bomber detonated his car as an ISAF convoy was entering the Kandahar airfield," Kandahar provincial police chief General Abdul Razeq told AFP.
There was no indication that the attack was connected with Panetta's visit, a US spokesman said.
"I have no information at this time that this incident was associated with the visit of the secretary of defense. The attack occurred after the secretary returned to Kabul," he said.
The Taliban's initial message to AFP made no mention of Panetta, but it was followed by a second text linking the attack to the Pentagon chief's visit.
Reporters travelling with Panetta were earlier briefed by senior officers
at Kandahar who told them security was steadily improving in the Kandahar region and that the Taliban had been seriously weakened.
The head of US-led forces in the area, Major General Robert Abrams, said the Taliban's capabilities were now "pretty limited".
But he said ISAF had detected "numerous" plots to attack Kandahar airfield that had been disrupted.
During a visit by Panetta to Camp Bastion in neighbouring Helmand province in March, an Afghan died after hijacking a truck and trying to ram it into US Marines waiting to greet the Pentagon chief at the airport.
Last week, Taliban suicide attackers struck at a NATO base at Jalalabad airport in eastern Afghanistan, killing five people and wounding several foreign troops in a two-hour battle, officials said.
A total of eight attackers armed with rocket-propelled grenades and
automatic weapons were killed, Afghan officials said.
The latest assaults came as the summer fighting season should be drawing to a close, indicating that the insurgency remains resilient after surviving the biggest onslaught US-led forces will throw against them.
The last of the extra 33,000 soldiers President Barack Obama deployed in a "surge" nearly three years ago left in September, and the vast majority of the remaining NATO force of more than 100,000 will follow by the end of 2014.
The biggest attack on a coalition base this year came in September, when insurgents stormed Camp Bastion in the south, destroying six fighter aircraft in the largest single loss of air assets for the United States since the Vietnam War.