Three U.S. service members killed in Afghanistan blast

KABUL (Reuters) - A roadside bomb blast killed three U.S. service members and wounded three others near the central Afghan city of Ghazni on Tuesday, the NATO-led Resolute Support mission said.

Taliban insurgents, who control large parts of Ghazni province, claimed responsibility for the attack, which also wounded an American civilian contractor.

A Taliban commander in Ghazni said U.S. and Afghan security forces were conducting raids in different areas of Ghazni and insurgents managed to plant a powerful improvised explosive device (IED) in the Shahbaz area targeting one of their armored vehicles.

“The U.S. and Afghan forces are desperately trying to recapture some of the important places in Ghazni and have conducted several raids but they couldn’t succeed and have suffered losses,” the commander said.

The NATO statement gave no details but Mohammad Arif Noori, a spokesman for the provincial governor, said an armored vehicle carrying U.S. troops hit a large roadside bomb in the Shahbaz area, just outside the city, on Tuesday morning.

He said U.S. special forces had been conducting operations with Afghan forces around Ghazni city since Monday.

The casualties were the latest in a growing toll on U.S. forces in Afghanistan and followed the death of an army Ranger during an operation against al Qaeda militants in Nimruz province on Saturday. Resolute Support said the soldier had been accidentally shot by a member of Afghan partner forces.

At least 11 U.S. service members have now died in Afghanistan this year, in combat or in so-called “insider attacks” by Afghan soldiers or police. Four Czech soldiers, serving with Resolute Support, have also been killed.

There was no official confirmation from U.S. or NATO forces of the circumstances of Tuesday’s blast but Ghazni has been one of the most embattled regions of Afghanistan this year and many areas close to the city are in the hands of the Taliban.

The city, which sits on the main highway linking the capital Kabul with Kandahar in the south, was overrun this year by a large Taliban force before it was driven off by Afghan and U.S. troops after days of heavy fighting.

About 14,000 U.S. troops remain in Afghanistan as part of Resolute Support and a separate counter-terrorism mission aimed against militant groups such as al Qaeda and Islamic State.

The latest deaths come as the United States works toward peace talks with the Taliban.

Officials and experts believe talks are unlikely to make meaningful progress in the short-term and American casualties could further hurt the chances.

“The truth is that it could absolutely impact what is already this erratic line towards a peace agreement that we’re following,” said Jason Campbell, a policy researcher at the RAND Corporation think-tank.

The Taliban have strengthened their grip over the past three years, with the government in Kabul controlling just 56 percent of Afghanistan, down from 72 percent in 2015, a recent U.S. government report showed.

“It would be wise for the United States and its coalition and other interested parties to gird themselves for what will most likely be a period that is somewhat tumultuous,” said Campbell, until recently a senior Pentagon official on Afghanistan.

Reporting by Abdul Qadir Sediqi, Jibran Ahmad in Peshawar and Idrees Ali in Washington; Editing by Nick Macfie, Mark Heinrich and Tom Brown