KANDAHAR, Afghanistan -- A bomb exploded aboard a minibus carrying Afghans to work at a coalition air base yesterday, killing seven, as US-led forces launched a sweeping anti-Taliban offensive across southern Afghanistan.
The morning rush-hour bombing marked the first major attack targeting Afghan coalition employees -- apparently a new Taliban tactic.
The bomb, which also wounded 17, was hidden inside a bus that takes workers daily to Kandahar Airfield, headquarters for coalition troops in the south. Among those killed were interpreters and laborers for the air base, Afghan officials said.
A military spokesman, Major Quentin Innis, blamed Taliban militants for the attack, which left blood and body parts strewn across the road in downtown Kandahar, a former Taliban stronghold.
``It's the first time Afghans working here have been deliberately targeted by the Taliban. These are local guys trying to support their families," he said.
The bomb was placed either inside or underneath the minibus and rigged to explode with passengers on board, Innis said, adding that attacks on a nonmilitary target marked a ``shift in tactics for the Taliban."
Openly targeting local people who work with US and coalition officials is a common intimidation tactic used by insurgents in Iraq, but had not been seen in Afghanistan.
The bombing occurred as more than 10,000 Afghan, US, British, and Canadian troops began ``moving forward with large-scale operations" in four southern provinces: Uruzgan, Helmand, Kandahar, and Zabul, the US military said.
``Operation Mountain Thrust," the largest offensive since the 2001 invasion that toppled the Taliban regime, aims to stop Taliban fighters believed to be responsible for a spate of ambushes and suicide attacks against coalition forces and Afghan authorities in recent months.
The offensive was intended to coincide with this summer's transfer of command in the south from the US-led coalition to the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force.
``There is no scheduled end date to Mountain Thrust. The coalition will continue operations well into the summer and until objectives are met," a US military statement said.
The offensive is focused on the southern Uruzgan and northeastern Helmand provinces, where the military said most of the militants have gathered. Kandahar and Zabul are former Taliban strongholds.
Limited operations began May 15 with attacks on Taliban command-and-control and support networks. According to US military and Afghan figures, about 550 people, mostly militants, have been killed since mid-May, along with at least nine coalition troops.
The operation will involve 2,300 US conventional and special forces, 3,300 Britons, 2,200 Canadians, 3,500 Afghans, and coalition air support, said Major General Benjamin C. Freakley, US operational commander in Afghanistan.
US-led troops have conducted large-scale operations elsewhere in Afghanistan involving several thousand soldiers, particularly in the east near the Pakistan border, where Taliban forces attack US-led troops from mountain ranges.