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Afghan president survives assassination bid

Afghan President Hamid Karzai escaped unhurt on Sunday after an assassination attempt by Taliban fighters who fired guns and rockets at an official celebration in the capital, Kabul.
/ Source: news services

Taliban militants attacked a ceremony attended by the Afghan president on Sunday, unleashing automatic weapons fire that sent foreign dignitaries and senior members of the government fleeing for cover.

Three people, including a lawmaker, were killed and eight were wounded. President Hamid Karzai, Cabinet ministers and ambassadors escaped unharmed, the presidential palace said.

Karzai later appeared on television saying several suspects in the attack had been arrested.

He said that “the enemy of Afghanistan” tried to disrupt the ceremony but were thwarted by security forces.

A Taliban spokesman claimed responsibility for the attack, saying it had deployed six militants with suicide vests and guns to target the president. Spokesman Zabiullah Mujaheed said three had died.

A police official, who requested anonymity because of he was not authorized to speak to media, said security forces killed three gunmen who had opened fire from an apartment block not far from the ceremony and confiscated assault rifles and machine guns. Government officials could not immediately confirm that information.

Hundreds of people fled in chaos as shots rang out, just as the national anthem ended at a ceremony to mark the 16th anniversary of Afghanistan’s victory over the Soviet invasion.

The gunfire appeared to come from ruined houses about few hundred yards from where the VIPs were seated. Security forces deployed elsewhere opened fire at the houses.

Karzai was escorted from scene, surrounded by bodyguards, in one of four black SUVs. A U.S. embassy official said U.S. Ambassador William Wood also escaped unharmed.

British ambassador Sir Sherard Cowper-Coles was standing on the front row of the dais alongside the U.S. envoy to Kabul.

“It was coming to the end of the 21-gun salute. I saw an explosion and a puff of dust to the left of the parade and then heard the crackle of small arms fire from all directions,” he told Reuters.

“After some hesitation, my bodyguard frog-marched me away.”

Lawmaker, Shiite leader, boy killed
Along with lawmaker Fazel Rahman Samkanai, a local Shiite leader and a 10-year-old boy also died in the attack, officials said.

“President Karzai condemns this act and asks for all the people to remain calm,” a statement from the presidential palace said.

Karzai, who has led Afghanistan since soon after a U.S.-led invasion ousted the Taliban regime in 2001, has been targeted by assassins before and is constantly shadowed by a phalanx of bodyguards.

The attack came despite unprecedented tight security for Sunday’s celebrations.

For days Kabul has been ringed by checkpoints with security forces and plainclothes intelligence officials searching vehicles. The area where the ceremonies took place had been blocked off by troops, tanks and armored personnel carriers.

The live TV coverage of the assassination attempt will add to the sense of insecurity in the Afghan capital, which has been spared the worst of the violence as fighting has escalated between Taliban insurgents and NATO and U.S.-led forces — leaving thousands dead last year.

It was the first militant attack in the city since mid-March.

Men hit just 30 yards from Karzai
In TV footage, two lawmakers who were sitting about 30 yards from Karzai appeared to be hit by the gunfire. One of the men slumped back in his seat, while the other lay on the ground.

People at the ceremony ducked for cover then fled — among them Afghan police and soldiers who were assembled for the pageantry. Karzai had just completed a drive-past in a U.S.-supplied Humvee jeep.

Mujaheed, the Taliban spokesman, said insurgents carrying AK-47s and rocket-propelled grenades perpetrated the attack. He said BM-12 missiles — a crude rocket launched from a small platform — were used in the attack. He spoke to an AP reporter by phone from an undisclosed location.

Mohammad Saleh Saljoqi, a lawmaker at the ceremony, said there was continuous AK-47 gunfire and two rockets — which he described as rocket-propelled grenades — landed near the dignitaries.

One rocket hit inside the Eid Gah mosque opposite where Karzai was sitting. The second hit when the president had already left, landing about 50 yards away, Saljoqi said.

About 100 people were rounded up for questioning, an Afghan intelligence official said. He spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to media.

Karzai’s narrowest escape from an assassination attempt since he became president came in September 2002 when a gunman opened fire as he visited the southern city of Kandahar. Three people, including the gunman, died in that attack.

Taliban insurgents regrouped and relaunched their insurgency two years ago and now fight daily battles with Afghan and foreign troops mainly in the south and east and have launched scores of suicide attacks throughout the country.

The soft-spoken president has repeatedly offered to hold peace talks with the Taliban, but the hardline Islamist militants have said they will fight on till they topple Karzai and drive out the more than 50,000 foreign troops from Afghanistan.

Karzai’s government is reliant on foreign aid and Western military support as it tries to bring peace and rebuild a country shattered by nearly 30 years of war.

Facing presidential elections next year, Karzai is looking increasingly besieged as frustration grows among both Afghans and his foreign backers over his failure to crack down on rampant corruption, appoint capable administrators and help bring security to the country.