One of Afghanistan's most powerful warlords survived an apparent al-Qa'ida assassination attempt when a suicide bomber blew himself up just yards away at a prayer service yesterday.
Twenty five people were injured, two critically, but General Abdul Rashid Dostum was shaken but unharmed after a bearded man, pretending to be a beggar, detonated explosives strapped to his body.
General Dostum told a local television station: "After Eid prayers, I greeted some people and when I wanted to put on my shoes, my bodyguards were trying to stop people coming toward me.
"Suddenly there was a very big explosion. Fortunately, with the grace of God, I was not injured."
General Dostum's brother and two of his bodyguards were among the wounded. Qadir Dostum said: "I was embracing my brother, then suddenly something exploded and I was injured in my face."
The explosion happened just behind General Dostum as worshippers queued up to kiss his lapels, apparently as guards prevented the bomber from approaching the warlord.
The prayers, held in General Dostum's fiefdom of Sheberghan in northern Afghanistan, were to mark the beginning of the Muslim Festival of Eid al-Adha.
A Taliban spokesman claimed responsibility for the attack, saying it was an act of revenge for General Dostum's alleged killing of captured Taliban fighters in 2001. Mullah Abdul Hakim Latifi said one of its members had mounted the attack to avenge the alleged slaughter. "Thousands of Taliban had surrendered, but Dostum and his men killed them," Mullah Latifi said in a satellite telephone call from an undisclosed location. "We will attack any Afghans who are allies of the Americans or the present government."
The body of the attacker, who was believed to be in his twenties, was too mutilated to be identified. Most suicide attacks in Afghanistan are believed to have been carried out by foreign al-Qa'ida operatives, perhaps at the behest of the Taliban. Police later claimed to have arrested a Bangladeshi in connection with the attack, which coincided with a defiant call to arms from the fugitive Taliban leader, Mullah Omar, who recently scorned talks about amnesties for low-level guerrillas.
General Dostum is one of Afghanistan's most hated men and has a long list of enemies, although the nature of the assassination bid pointed firmly at al-Qa'ida or one of its allies.
Analysts warned that if a rival warlord was eventually blamed for the attack, further violence could be expected. "The important thing now is Dostum's perception of this attack, whether he sees this as an attack from the outside, from the Taliban or al-Qa'ida, or from the inside, from his enemies in Kabul," Reuters quoted one diplomat from northern Afghanistan as saying.
General Dostum is blamed for killing thousands of civilians and is notorious for repeatedly switching sides during the country's years of civil war until the Taliban drove him into exile. He returned to power as an ally of the US in 2001 and came fourth in last year's presidential election. The ethnic Uzbek strongman is particularly hated by the Taliban because he stands accused of killing thousands of their fighters by cramming them in metal containers where they suffocated in 2001. He rarely emerges from his fortified palaces and is always surrounded by security guards.
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