Bomber kills at least nine people in Kabul during Hagel’s visit to Afghanistan

Suicide bombers killed at least 18 people in Afghanistan Saturday during new U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel’s visit to the country, highlighting continued violence as the U.S. prepares to remove its troops.

A bomber riding a bicycle struck outside the Ministry of Defense in Kabul, killing at least nine civilians, according to press accounts.

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The Taliban claimed responsibility for the attack, according to multiple reports, calling it a “message” for Hagel, who is in Afghanistan for his first foreign trip as leader of the Pentagon.

Hagel, in a press briefing, expressed “sincere sympathy” to the families of the victims.

He noted that “we are at war.”

“That is just the reality, and we are going to continue to work with the Afghans and our coalition partners to fight that war and to assure that the Afghan people have every ability and right to develop their own country in their own way in a democracy,” he said.

Hagel said he was in a briefing when the bombing in Kabul went off.

“I wasn’t sure what it was, I was in a briefing, but we are in a war zone, I have been in war, so . . . shouldn’t be surprised when a bomb goes off or there’s an explosion,” said Hagel, a veteran of the Vietnam War.

Hagel arrived in the country Friday evening and, in a message to troops issued before the bombings, said the war remains “a dangerous and difficult mission” even as U.S. forces move into more of a support role.

“We are still at war, and many of you will continue to experience the ugly reality of combat and the heat of battle,” he said. “But the goal we have established — to have Afghans assume full responsibility for security by the end of 2014 — is clear and achievable.”

In addition to the bombing in Kabul, a suicide bomber attacked a police checkpoint in eastern Afghanistan’s Khost province, the Associated Press reported. A provincial spokesman said the blast killed a policeman and eight civilians, mostly children, AP reports.

As the new Defense secretary, Hagel will be responsible for overseeing the drawdown of U.S. troops in Afghanistan ahead of 2014, when NATO plans to hand off security control to Afghan forces.

--This report was updated at 5:51 p.m.