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Taliban insurgents storm U.S. base, killing one American

KABUL, Afghanistan - Taliban insurgents armed with rockets, grenades and suicide vests stormed the giant U.S.-run Bagram Air Field before dawn yesterday, triggering an eight-hour firefight that killed an American contractor and at least 10 attackers and wounded nine U.S. service members.

As troops and contractors huddled in secure bunkers, the militants fired their weapons over American defenses into the base, according to Maj. Virginia McCabe, a spokeswoman for U.S. forces at Bagram. White smoke could be seen rising from the garrison as U.S. attack helicopters whirred overhead.

It was the second major Taliban assault in the Kabul area in as many days, breaking a nearly three-month lull in insurgent attacks around the Afghan capital. Eighteen people, including five U.S. soldiers and a Canadian colonel, were killed Tuesday in a suicide car bombing in Kabul.

Those brazen assaults underscore the militants' ability to strike at the heart of the U.S.-led mission and appear part of a new Taliban offensive against NATO forces, foreign diplomats, contractors and Afghan government officials. The attacks are expected to serve as a morale booster for insurgents and their supporters as the U.S. prepares for a major operation against the Taliban in their southern heartland.

U.S. officials said about 30 insurgents, some wearing military-style uniforms, launched the attack about 3 a.m. against the gates of the Bagram base, one of the most important military installations in the country. Taliban spokesman Zabiullah Mujahid, who telephoned reporters, said 20 to 30 fighters breached the defenses of the base, which serves as the Afghanistan control hub for U.S. forces.

Pentagon spokesman Bryan Whitman said the attackers "were not successful in penetrating the perimeter." A civilian contractor was killed and nine service members wounded.

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