Karzai escapes assassination

The Baltimore Sun

KABUL, Afghanistan -- A well-coordinated attempt by suspected Taliban insurgents to assassinate President Hamid Karzai at the Afghan national day military parade in central Kabul has turned into a moment of national embarrassment for his government, which has been pressing to take over responsibility for Kabul's security from foreign troops.

Three people were killed yesterday in the brazen assault, ruining what was supposed to have been a proud moment for Afghan security forces. The ability of the attackers to get so close to Karzai, who escaped unhurt, suggested they had inside help.

The dead included a tribal chief and a member of parliament who were in the reviewing stands near Karzai, and a 10-year-old boy caught in the crossfire between militants and security forces, officials said. Eleven people were wounded, among them army officers, police officers and civilians, hospital officials said. Several suspects were arrested later.

The attack sent officials and foreign diplomats scrambling for cover in the stands and hundreds of soldiers running off the parade ground in disarray. Karzai was whisked out a back exit and the ceremony was abandoned after Afghan security forces had spent weeks preparing and rehearsing.

The military, police and intelligence services, all of them involved in security for the ceremony, quickly began laying blame on one another for failing to thwart the attack. The Taliban claimed responsibility, saying that its aim had been to disrupt the ceremony and show that it could strike in the heart of the capital.

"We cannot say Afghanistan is free," Zabiullah Mujahed, a Taliban spokesman, said by telephone. "Afghanistan is still under the domination of infidels."

The last time Kabul was hit by such a well-coordinated terrorist attack was in January, when militants with links to Pakistan's tribal areas tried to storm a five-star hotel in coordination with a suicide bomber who breached the gate security and a gunman disguised as a police officer who shot at civilians in the lobby.

Afghan security forces in Kabul have mostly faced lone suicide bombers and car bombs in the past several years and appeared to have been surprised by the brazenness of yesterday's action. The attackers apparently worked in two teams, one firing mortars and one firing guns into the VIP stands from a nearby hotel.

It was not clear how the gunmen were able to bring weapons so close to the parade ground, but the Taliban claimed to have help within the government forces.

"The full responsibility goes to the security ministries," said Noor ul Haq Uloomi, a former general who is chairman of the parliamentary security committee. "It's because they always think about the quantity, and not the quality, of the forces."

In the days before the parade, Kabul was flooded by police officers and intelligence agents who blocked roads and checked cars. Police officers were stationed at the hotel used by the gunmen, but apparently did not search individual rooms.

"There were security measures, but not precise measures," Uloomi said. "We cannot claim [to] have security forces of quality to take over the security of Afghanistan."

Karzai had survived at least three previous assassination attempts, but this was the first in the capital.

He appeared on television within an hour of the attack and told Afghans that everything was fine.

The military parade was staged in front of the Eid Gah Mosque for what is known as Mujahedeen Day, which celebrates the victory of the Afghan resistance to the Soviet occupation of the 1980s. Cabinet members, lawmakers, ambassadors and other guests were assembled in the stands as Karzai and Defense Minister Abdul Rahim Wardak inspected the military and police units from open-topped military vehicles.

Then they returned to the main stand and stood as the national anthem was played and an artillery gun salute was fired. After the first four or five volleys, a mortar round slammed into a main street outside the parade ground. It was followed by gunfire and then a second mortar, a general who had been standing close to the president said. He asked not to be named.

The U.S. ambassador, William B. Wood, was at the ceremony but not harmed, a spokesman told news agencies. Afghan state television, which was showing the ceremony live, cut off coverage as people fled.

In television images, two parliament members sitting 30 yards from Karzai could be seen falling to the ground as gunfire rang out.

The leader of an ethnic minority called the Qizilbash, Nasir Ahmad Latifi, was killed by bullet wounds to his chest, a relative said.

Fazel Rahman Samkanai, a member of parliament, died at a military hospital of his wounds, a doctor at the hospital said.

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