Story Highlights• Afghan officials put death toll at 23; U.S. expects to update its figure
• Cheney describes "loud boom;" says bombing "shouldn't affect our behavior"
• Taliban claims responsibility for blast at Bagram base, says Cheney was target
• Officials say Cheney is fine, was not near site of the explosion
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KABUL, Afghanistan (AP) -- A suicide bomber attacked the entrance to the main U.S. military base in Afghanistan Tuesday during a visit by U.S. Vice President Dick Cheney, killing up to 23 people and wounding 20 more.
The Taliban claimed responsibility and said Cheney was the target. Cheney was unhurt in the attack.
About two hours after the blast, Cheney left on a military flight for Kabul to meet with President Hamid Karzai and other officials, then left Afghanistan. (Map)
The vice president had spent the night at the sprawling Bagram Air Base. He ate breakfast with the troops, and met with Maj. Gen. David Rodriguez, the commander of U.S. troops in Afghanistan.
He was preparing to leave for the meeting with Karzai when the suicide bomber struck about 10 a.m. (12:30 a.m. ET), sending up a plume of smoke visible to reporters accompanying him. U.S. military officials declared a "red alert" at the base. (Watch the scene at base where bomb went off )
"I heard a loud boom," Cheney told reporters. "The Secret Service came in and told me there had been an attack on the main gate."
He said he was moved "for a brief period of time" to a bomb shelter on the base near his quarters. "As the situation settled down and they had a better sense of what was going on, I went back to my room," Cheney added.
Asked if the Taliban were trying to send a message with the attack, Cheney said: "I think they clearly try to find ways to question the authority of the central government."
"Striking at Bagram with a suicide bomber, I suppose, is one way to do that," he said. "But it shouldn't affect our behavior at all."
Maj. William Mitchell said Cheney was not near the site of the blast. "He was safely within the base at the time of the explosion," Mitchell said.
There were conflicting reports on the death toll.
Karzai's office said 23 people were killed, including 20 Afghan workers at the base. Another 20 people were injured, it said.
NATO's International Security Assistance Force said initial reports were that three people were killed, including a U.S. soldier, an American contractor and a South Korean soldier. U.S. officials indicated they planned to update that death toll.
Associated Press reporters at the scene said they saw at least 12 bodies in black body bags and wooden coffins being carried from the base area to the market, where hundreds of Afghans had gathered to mourn.
Friends and relatives cried and moaned as they carried or drove the bodies away from the base. Two men came to the base entrance crying and wringing their hands, one of them screaming, "My brother!"
A purported Taliban spokesman, Qari Yousef Ahmadi, said Cheney was the target of the attack.
"We knew that Dick Cheney would be staying inside the base," Ahmadi told The Associated Press by telephone. "The attacker was trying to reach Cheney."
'A far-fetched allegation'
Mitchell noted that Cheney's overnight stay occurred only after a meeting with Karzai on Monday was canceled because of bad weather.
"I think it's a far-fetched allegation," he said, referring to the Taliban claim. "The vice president wasn't even supposed to be here overnight, so this would have been a surprise to everybody."
White House deputy press secretary Dana Perino said she could not confirm that the Taliban was behind the attack.
Perino said President Bush got an update Tuesday morning about the attack, but had not yet spoken to Cheney about it. Bush was not awakened to be told about the attack, she said.
"Of course, we're glad that he's OK," Perino said of Cheney.
Security measures in place
The explosion happened near the first of at least three gated checkpoints that vehicles must pass through before gaining access to Bagram, meaning the attacker did not get near Cheney's location.
The base houses 5,100 U.S. troops and 4,000 other coalition forces and contractors. High security areas within the base are blocked by their own checkpoints. It was unclear how an attacker could expect to penetrate the base, locate the vice president and get close to him without detection.
"We maintain a high-level of security here at all times. Our security measures were in place and the killer never had access to the base," said Lt. Col. James E. Bonner, the base operations commander. "When he realized he would not be able to get onto the base he attacked the local population."
Cheney, Karzai discuss 'problems from Pakistan'
Later in Kabul, Cheney and Karzai met privately for an hour and spoke about the "problems coming from Pakistan," said an Afghan government official, a reference to cross-border infiltration by militants who launch attacks in Afghanistan.
"We understand now that the U.S. government realizes that in order to stop terrorism in Afghanistan and to stop terrorist attacks in Afghanistan, there must be a clear fight against terrorism in Pakistan," said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the matter.
Cheney traveled to Afghanistan after a stop Monday in Pakistan. (Full story)
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Vice President Dick Cheney, right, met with Afghan President Hamid Karzai after the explosion near the military base at Bagram.