Afghan president escapes assassination attempt

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The Independent Online

The Afghan President Hamid Karzai escaped unhurt after an assassination attempt today by Taliban fighters with guns and rockets during an official celebration in the capital, Kabul.

Government ministers along with leaders of other political factions were seen ducking for cover after gunfire sounded at the celebration to mark the 16th anniversary of fall of the Afghan communist government to the mujahideen.

Karzai later appeared on state television.

"Today, the enemies of Afghanistan, the enemies of Afghanistan's security and progress tried to disrupt the ceremony and cause disorder and terror," he said.

"Fortunately, Afghanistan's military forces surrounded them quickly and arrested some of the suspects," he said.

The Taliban, which claimed responsibility for the attack, said three of its fighters were killed.

British ambassador Sir Sherard Cowper-Cowles was standing on the front row of the dais alongside the US 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. After some hesitation my bodyguard frog-marched me away," he told Reuters.

All cabinet members and foreign diplomats present at the parade, along with General Dan McNeill, US commander of international forces in Afghanistan, were safe and well, spokesmen said.

But one person was killed and 11 wounded, including a member of parliament, a Defence Ministry spokesman said.

A Reuters witness saw around four civilians wounded. The firing appeared to have come from a building, located a few hundred metres from the site, a road which is blocked off for official parades with a dais on one side, close to the presidential palace.

"Three of our attackers have been killed and three managed to escape. Small arms and RPGs (rocket-propelled grenades) were used in the attack," Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid told Reuters from an undisclosed location.

Immediately after the attack, bandsmen in full dress uniform mingled with ordinary soldiers trying to get out of the line of fire. Other soldiers and Karzai's bodyguards, dressed in black, took up firing positions in roads near the parade ground.

The occasional crack of gunfire sent the crowds ducking and crouching behind vehicles.

Karzai has survived several assassination attempts since he came to power after US-led and Afghan forces toppled the Taliban in late 2001 for failing to hand over al Qaeda leaders behind the Sept. 11 attacks on the United States.

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's government 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.

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