BAMIYAN, Afghanistan - First lady Laura Bush, on a mission to highlight signs of progress in war-weary Afghanistan, ventured outside the capital yesterday to an area that symbolizes both the destruction and attempt at rebirth.
Fresh attacks swept across the country. The British military reported yesterday that three of its soldiers were killed, and the BBC reported that one of its Afghan journalists was kidnapped and killed.
The soldiers were killed by a suicide bomber while on foot patrol less than a mile from their base in Afghanistan's Upper Sangin Valley.
A fourth soldier was wounded in the attack yesterday.
On her third visit to the country, the first lady flew into Kabul before boarding a helicopter for a 50-minute flight to Bamiyan province, the farthest she has traveled from Afghanistan's largest city.
The helicopter landed in a dusty field at a provincial reconstruction-team compound operated by New Zealand. From there she could see the empty niches in a cliffside where two giant Buddha statues once stood.
They were carved into the sandstone cliffs more than 2,000 years ago. The Taliban, which considered the statues idolatrous and anti-Muslim, demolished the treasures in March 2001, causing an international outcry. The Taliban ruled Afghanistan until the U.S. invaded after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
Bush's visit came ahead of a conference Thursday in Paris where the U.S. hopes other countries will pledge billions of dollars to help Afghanistan. She intends to address the conference.
"The people of Afghanistan don't want to go back and live like that," Bush told reporters during the nearly 14-hour flight to Kabul. "They know what it was like. The international community can't drop Afghanistan now, at this very crucial time."
Afghanistan is seeing a spiraling heroin trade and a resurgence of violence, as the U.S. and NATO have poured more thousands of new troops into the country.
Last year, more than 8,000 people were killed in insurgency-related attacks - the most since the 2001 invasion - and violence has claimed more than 1,500 lives this year.
Yesterday, besides the bombing that killed the three British soldiers, insurgents attacked a police convoy in central Afghanistan, killing 11 police and wounding one, an official said.
Militants in the east killed four men including a local government official.
And the BBC said that the body of one its Afghan journalists was found after he had disappeared in Helmand province.
During her daylong visit, the first lady met with President Hamid Karzai, saw a police academy where female recruits are trained and visited U.S. troops.
The U.S. now has about 33,000 troops in Afghanistan, the most ever.
Karzai said at a news conference with the first lady on the grounds of the presidential palace that his government will go to the Paris conference with a "very realistic evaluation" of the past six years, including a look at problems such as corruption.
At Bagram Air Field north of Kabul, Bush told about 600 U.S. soldiers gathering in a hangar of the "huge step forward to defend freedom from the forces of oppression."