At least two people were killed, including a US contractor, when suicide bombers attacked a police training centre in Kandahar on Monday in the latest Taliban assault aimed at countering a big Nato operation to secure the city.

The US embassy said an American working for Dyncorp, the US security company, and another foreign national were among the dead.

Police gunned down two of the would-be bombers after the first attacker blew himself up in an attempt to breach the base wall, said Zemarai Bashary, interior ministry spokesman.

Mr Bashary denied that anybody had been killed apart from the three assailants. It was not immediately possible to account for the discrepancy between his account and the report of at least two civilian deaths announced by the US embassy.

The raid underscored the vulnerability of Afghanistan’s second-biggest city at a time of uncertainty in the upper echelons of the security services following the resignations of the interior minister and head of the intelligence service on Sunday.

Hanif Atmar, the interior minister, and Amrullah Saleh, the head of the National Directorate of Security, Afghanistan’s spy agency, were forced to step down after President Hamid Karzai ordered an investigation into an attack on the start of a three-day peace meeting in Kabul last week. Insurgents evaded a massive security blanket to fire rockets and battle police, although the event went ahead as planned and the only casualties were militants.

The resignations surprised US officials, who regarded Mr Atmar and Mr Saleh as among the most competent and reliable members of Mr Karzai’s team. Robert Gates, the US defence secretary, told reporters travelling with him to London on Monday that he hoped Mr Karzai would appoint successors of “equal calibre”. “It’s obviously an internal matter for the Afghans,” Mr Gates said.

Taliban insurgents have launched a campaign of bombings and assassinations to try to thwart attempts by Nato allies to bolster the weak administration of Tooryalai Wesa, Kandahar’s provincial governor, and build up local security forces. A bomb exploded outside the governor’s office on Saturday, killing a policeman and wounding bystanders.

Nato sees securing Kandahar, the cradle of the Taliban, as critical to a broader strategy to roll back the insurgency’s gains of recent years by protecting key population centres and denying fighters safe havens.

A growing number of US troops are being deployed on missions to secure districts around the city, while Canadian trainers work to improve the ability of the often ineffectual Afghan police to protect the urban centre. The operation, Nato’s biggest in Afghanistan, is seen as vital to turning the course of the nine-year war before US troops begin to withdraw in July 2011.

Western allies regard building up Afghanistan’s army and police as a critical component of their exit strategy for about 140,000 foreign troops. A US government audit to be released at the end of this month will cast doubt on the $25bn training effort. According to the audit, the standards used to appraise the Afghan forces since 2005 were woefully inadequate, inflating their abilities.

US commanders have cast Afghan forces in a vital supporting role in their campaign in Kandahar, although recent reports from the field have depicted Afghan units as disorganised and unable to function independently.

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