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Afghan bombers strike during US official's visit

KABUL, Afghanistan (AP) — Militants staged two suicide attacks that killed at least 19 people on Saturday, the first full day of U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel's visit to Afghanistan. They were a fresh reminder of the challenges posed by insurgents to the U.S.-led NATO force as it hands over the country's security to the Afghans.

"This attack was a message to him," Taliban spokesman Zabiullah Mujahid said of Hagel, in an email to reporters about the bombing outside the country's Defense Ministry in Kabul.

Hagel was nowhere near that attack, but heard it across the city. He told reporters traveling with him that he wasn't sure what it was when he heard the explosion.

"We're in a war zone. I've been in war, so shouldn't be surprised when a bomb goes off or there's an explosion," said Hagel, a Vietnam War veteran. Asked what his message to the Taliban would be, he said that the U.S. was going to continue to work with its allies to insure that the Afghan people have the ability to develop their own country and democracy.

In the first attack, a suicide bomber on a bicycle struck outside the Afghan Defense Ministry early Saturday morning, just as employees were arriving for work. About a half hour later, another suicide bomber hit a joint NATO and Afghan patrol near a police checkpoint in Khost city, the capital of Khost province in eastern Afghanistan, said provincial spokesman Baryalai Wakman.

Nine Afghan civilians were killed in the bombing at the ministry and 14 wounded, and two Afghan policemen and eight children died in the blast in Khost while another two Afghan civilians were wounded, according to a statement from President Hamid Karzai's office.

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