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Taliban fires rockets at Afghan president

Taliban militants fired a barrage of rockets at President Hamid Karzai on Sunday as he spoke with a group of elders, but the Afghan leader did not flinch as the rockets landed about 200 yards away from him.
/ Source: The Associated Press

Taliban militants fired a barrage of rockets at President Hamid Karzai on Sunday as he spoke with a group of elders, but the Afghan leader did not flinch as the rockets landed about 200 yards away from him.

A purported Taliban spokesman said militants planned the strike after learning in advance about Karzai’s arrival in Ghazni, a central Afghan province with a strong Taliban presence. Provincial police chief Ali Shah Ahmadzai said no one was hurt in the attack. But it was a sign of the group’s rising capabilities after a winter lull in violence.

It was the third attempt on Karzai’s life since he became president.

“Please sit down, sit down,” Karzai told the gathering under a tent in a school yard, gesturing for them to be seated after the rockets landed with a thud. “Don’t be scared. Nothing is happening.”

Several bearded men seated in front of Karzai immediately broke out in applause.

Karzai finished his speech and his security detail whisked him off by helicopter to Kabul, witnesses and officials said.

Sunday’s attack underscored the dangers faced by the U.S.-backed government of Karzai, who holds shaky sway over a country plagued by relentless Taliban-led violence that has killed about 2,200 people this year — many of them militants, according to an Associated Press tally of numbers reported by the U.S., NATO, U.N. and Afghan officials. Violence elsewhere in Afghanistan on Sunday left 66 people dead.

In February, a suicide bomber blew himself up at the main gate of Bagram Air Base within earshot of Vice President Dick Cheney. That explosion, which the U.S. military blamed on al-Qaida, killed 23 people, including two Americans.

In 2002, a gunmen dressed in Afghan army uniform opened fire as Karzai moved toward his motorcade in the southern city of Kandahar. The assailant and two others were killed, while Karzai escaped unscathed.

In 2004, insurgents fired a rocket at an American helicopter taking Karzai to the eastern city of Gardez, missing the chopper as it approached a landing zone.

Backed by NATO and coalition forces, Afghanistan is struggling to build an effective central government while fending off insurgents supported by the Taliban, the extremist Islamic movement driven out in 2001.

Qari Yousef Ahmadi, the Taliban spokesman, told The Associated Press that Taliban militants were behind Sunday’s attack on Karzai.

“The Taliban knew that Karzai was coming to Andar district. When Karzai was meeting with the people, the Taliban fired 12 rockets,” Ahmadi said by satellite phone from an undisclosed location. “The rockets fell nearby.”

Witnesses said they heard between three and six rockets.

Khial Mohammad, a Ghazni lawmaker at the gathering with Karzai, said that during the speech “we heard the sounds of rockets whizzing over our heads” before slamming in the distance.

In northwestern Afghanistan, militants attacked three separate posts Saturday in Murghab district of Badghis province, sparking a six-hour long battle that killed 20 suspected Taliban and two police, said provincial police chief Gen. Mohammad Ayub Naizyar.

Police repelled the attack and sent reinforcements, forcing the militants to withdraw, Naizyar said.

There have been a number of recent attacks in the relatively peaceful north, but the southern and eastern provinces are the hardest hit by the insurgency.

In southern Zabul province, NATO and Afghan troops clashed with militants and called in airstrikes, leaving 27 suspected Taliban insurgents dead in the district of Shinkay, Defense Ministry spokesman Gen. Mohammad Zahir Azimi said.

The operation followed intelligence reports of militant activity in the area, Azimi said. There were no reports of civilian casualties, he said.

Also in Zabul’s Naw Bahar district, NATO and Afghan troops clashed with insurgents, leaving 16 militants dead on Friday, a statement from Defense Ministry said.

The reports could not be independently verified because the incidents occurred in remote areas.

In Ghazni province, one Afghan soldier was killed and four were wounded when a roadside bomb hit their patrol Saturday, NATO said in a statement.