KABUL -- A Taliban bomber struck at a Defense Ministry gate in Kabul on Saturday killing nine people during a visit to Afghanistan by U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, Reuters reported.
Hagel was nowhere near the explosion, said a spokesman for Afghanistan's NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF). A U.S. defense official said Hagel was in a safe location at an ISAF facility.
An Afghan Defense Ministry official said at least nine people, all civilians, were killed. Fourteen people were wounded in the attack, carried out by a Taliban fighter on a bicycle.
Roads around the ministry building, which is near the presidential palace, were closed as emergency officials cleared the area of debris and washed blood from the street. A wall surrounding the ministry was pockmarked with shrapnel.
The Afghan Taliban claimed responsibility for the attack and said the ministry was the target. They said in a statement the attack "is a kind of message" for Hagel.
The blast underscored the security challenges facing Afghanistan as U.S.-led NATO forces prepare to leave the country by the end of 2014.
Some Afghans fear that another civil war could erupt or the Taliban will make a push to take control of the country again after Western combat troops withdraw.
In the eastern province of Khost, a suicide bomber attacked a joint Afghan and foreign patrol, killing seven civilians and a policeman, the provincial governor's office said in a statement.
After the blast in Kabul, the defense secretary flew to Bagram Air Base near Kabul for meetings with commanders.
Hagel, who arrived in Afghanistan on Friday for his first trip abroad as defense secretary, is due to hold talks with President Hamid Karzai, whose recent orders to curtail U.S. military activity highlights an often tense relationship with the 66,000 American forces here.
Another contentious issue is a U.S.-run prison at the Bagram base, which had been due to be handed over to full Afghan control on Saturday. But a planned ceremony to mark the final transfer of Afghan prisoners fell through at the last minute.
A spokesman for U.S. forces in Afghanistan said the two sides were working out the details of the transfer.
Hagel's visit also coincides with the passing of a deadline imposed by Karzai for U.S. special forces to leave the province of Wardak, after Karzai accused them of overseeing torture and killings in the area.
U.S. forces have denied involvement in any abuses and it was not clear if they were leaving Wardak by the deadline.
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