By Jalil Ahmad
HERAT, Afghanistan (Reuters) - Taliban insurgents led by suicide bombers launched attacks on an Italian military base and near a government building in the main city in Afghanistan's west on Monday, killing four people and wounding dozens, officials said.
The simultaneous attacks were launched in the center of Herat, near a Transport Department building and bus stop, and outside the Italian base on the city's outskirts, Herat provincial police chief Sayed Aqa Saqib said.
Dawood Saba, the governor of Herat province, said a suicide bomber in a small truck blew himself up at the entrance of the Italian-run base and that between two and four other attackers were still fighting from within a building nearby.
Another senior police official, Ghulam Farooq, said 37 people were wounded in the attacks. All those killed and wounded were civilians, he said.
However, Reuters pictures taken at the base showed one serviceman in an Italian uniform bleeding from a head wound next to the rubble of a partially destroyed wall.
The attacks were especially worrying because normally peaceful Herat, near the border with Iran, is one of seven areas where a gradual handover of security responsibility from foreign forces to Afghans will begin in July.
That handover is part of a process that will lead to all foreign combat troops leaving Afghanistan by the end of 2014. Some U.S. lawmakers and analysts have questioned the wisdom of that timetable with violence still at such high levels.
Saqib said it appeared most of the dead and wounded were from the attack in the center of the city.
Pictures taken outside the Italian-run base, which houses a joint civilian and military Provincial Reconstruction Team (PRT), suggested the truck bomb had destroyed part of an outer wall, a gate and a guardhouse.
External damage was severe, with rows of burned-out bicycles and cars, and the windows of shops shattered for some distance.
Ambulances rushed people to the hospital.
Taliban spokesman Qari Yousuf Ahmadi said four suicide bombers launched the attacks, although the militant Islamists often exaggerate claims involving attacks against foreign and Afghan targets.
Italian troops form the bulk of the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in the area but there was no immediate confirmation of casualties from ISAF.
A spokesman for ISAF in Kabul said the force was aware of reports of the attack and was looking into them.
INSURGENTS HIT BACK
Violence has spiked across Afghanistan since the Taliban announced at the beginning of May the start of a spring offensive.
The Afghan government and security forces and foreign military targets have been singled out in increasingly bold assaults in cities across the country as militants attempt to show they retain to the capacity to launch major strikes.
On Saturday, the powerful chief of police for all of northern Afghanistan was among seven people killed in an attack in the main city of Takhar province.
Initial reports said that blast had been carried out by a suicide bomber dressed as an Afghan policeman but Afghanistan's intelligence agency, the National Directorate for Security (NDS), said on Monday that may not have been the case.
The NDS said in a statement subsequent investigations suggested explosives had been hidden in a corridor outside the Takhar governor's office and were detonated remotely.
U.S. commanders had warned to expect a surge in violence as insurgents attempted to hit back after U.S.-led ISAF troops and Afghan forces made major gains in operations in the Taliban heartland in the south over the past 12 months.
Italy has about 3,880 troops serving in Afghanistan, the majority of them in the west, making it the fifth-largest contributor to the NATO force.
(Additional reporting by Sharafuddin Sharafyar in HERAT and Hamid Shalizi in KABUL; Writing by Paul Tait; Editing by Sanjeev Miglani)