By Sanjeev Miglani
KABUL (Reuters) - Afghanistan strongly rejected reports that some soldiers working at the defense ministry were involved in a bomb plot, saying no arrests had been made nor were any vests used for suicide bomb attacks found on the premises.
On Wednesday there was no sign of a hard clamp down on personnel movements at the sprawling ministry with soldiers checking scores of visitors as usual. However, the fast spread of reports of a cache of suicide vests found at the defense ministry on Tuesday illustrates the tense atmosphere in Kabul following a spike in attacks on foreign soldiers by rogue Afghan security forces.
The defense ministry said in a statement that reports on Tuesday about a plot to launch a suicide attack on buses that bring members of the Afghan National Army to the ministry were false.
"We have to say that not only have 16 people not been arrested, nor were 11 suicide vests detained," it said in a statement.
"The scenario about an attack on transportation buses of Afghan National Army is totally imaginary and baseless."
But two security officials, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said some soldiers who work at the heavily-guarded ministry had been taken into custody for questioning on Tuesday after some suspected suicide bomb vests were found in the parking lot.
One of the officials said the intelligence agencies were investigating a suspected plot involving the hijacking of commuter buses that bring soldiers to the ministry.
He said that six soldiers were detained last week, and following their questioning the suicide vests were found and more arrests were made this week.
"A number of soldiers have been detained," he said.
"There is a turf war going on between the ministry of defense and intelligence department," he added when asked to explain the discrepancy between their stand and the defense ministry.
He said intelligence agencies were closely monitoring government departments for possible infiltration by Taliban insurgents, who have been waging a decade-long war against the government and its Western backers.
The rise in so-called insider attacks on foreign forces has stoked fear that either Afghan soldiers and police have turned against their colleagues or the force has been infiltrated by Taliban insurgents.
Three foreign troops, including two Britons, were killed in attacks by Afghan security forces personnel on Monday, taking to 16 the number killed since January.
The increase in these attacks follows the shooting of civilians in Kandahar allegedly by a U.S. soldier, the inadvertent burning of copies of the Koran by U.S. soldiers at the main NATO base and a video of U.S. Marines urinating on the bodies of Afghan Taliban fighters.
The New York Times reported that the defense ministry went into "near-total lockdown" on Tuesday after the vests, which have pouches which suicide bombers pack with explosives for use in attacks, were found inside the ministry.
It said the defense ministry plot was uncovered on Monday and that at least half a dozen unidentified Western and Afghan officials had confirmed the plot.
The building is in one of the most heavily fortified areas of the Afghan capital and is less than a mile from the presidential palace and the headquarters of the NATO-led foreign force in Afghanistan.
"You have to be cautious when you come here. It is not safe here," the newspaper quoted one unidentified Afghan army officer as saying. The officer also said the plotters "have links inside the ministry. Otherwise, they could not enter such a highly secured place".
Last September, insurgents holed up in a partially constructed building in the same area showered the U.S. embassy and NATO headquarters with rocket-propelled grenades and gunfire in an attack lasting more than 20 hours.
(Reporting by Kabul bureau; Additional reporting by Paul Tait in Sydney and Mirwais Harooni; Writing by Sanjeev Miglani; Editing by ed Lane)