An Afghan Army soldier runs outside the Afghan Defense Ministry after a suicide bomber on a bicycle struck outside the ministry, killing at least nine Afghan civilians as U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel visited Kabul, Afghanistan, Saturday, March 9, 2013. (AP Photo/Anja Niedringhaus)
KABUL, Afghanistan (AP) — A suicide bomber on a bicycle struck outside the Afghan Defense Ministry on Saturday, one of two attacks that killed at least 18 people as U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel visited the nation, officials said.
Nine people were killed in the bombing at the ministry, a fresh reminder that insurgents continue to fight and challenges remain as the U.S.-led NATO force hands over the country's security to the Afghans.
About a half hour later, another suicide bomber attacked a police checkpoint in Khost, the capital of Khost province in eastern Afghanistan. An Afghan policeman and eight civilians, who were mostly children, died in that blast, said provincial spokesman Baryalai Wakman.
"We are still at war," Hagel said after he arrived on Friday, the same day that three men wearing Afghan army uniforms and driving an Afghan army vehicle forced their way onto a U.S. base in eastern Afghanistan and opened fire, killing one civilian contractor and wounding other U.S. troops.
The Taliban claimed responsibility for the morning attack at the ministry, saying it was meant to send a signal to the U.S. defense chief. "This attack was a message to him," Taliban spokesman Zabiullah Mujahid said in an email to reporters.
Pentagon spokesman George Little said Hagel was in a briefing at a U.S.-led military coalition facility in another part of the city when the explosion occurred. He said the briefing continued without interruption.
Afghan Defense Ministry spokesman Gen. Mohammad Zahir Azimi said the bomber on a bicycle struck just before 9 a.m. local time about 30 meters (yards) from the main gate of the ministry.
A man at the scene, Abdul Ghafoor, said the blast rocked the entire area.
"I saw dead bodies and wounded victims lying everywhere," Ghafoor told AP Television News. "Then random shooting started and we escaped from the area."
The ministry said at least nine civilians were killed and others were wounded.
Reporters traveling with Hagel were in a briefing when they heard the explosion. They were moved to a lower floor of the same building as U.S. facilities in downtown Kabul were locked down as a security precaution.
Associated Press writers Lolita C. Baldor and Heidi Vogt contributed to this report from Kabul.