'Lion of Panjshir' reported killed in suicide bombing

Taliban poised to take total control of the war-torn country and claim international recognition after attack on famed guerrilla leader
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The Independent Online

The man who represents the last bulwark of resistance against Afghanistan's Taliban regime was reported by Russian and American sources last night to have been killed by two suicide bombers.

Ahmed Shah Masood is the almost legendary guerrilla leader who held out for years against the might of the Soviet Union in his mountain headquarters in the Panjshir Valley, north-east of the capital, Kabul, gaining the title "the Lion of Panjshir" in the process. He survived to see the Soviet Union routed, he survived the internecine warfare between rival Mujahideen groups that followed. He has defied a dozen attempts on his life, and some followers were claiming his injuries were minor.

His brother, Ahmed Wali, who is the ambassador of the official but powerless Afghan regime to Britain, told reporters yesterday: "The doctor says it will be 10 or 12 hours before we know. His condition is stabilising but he is still unconscious."

But if Masood is dead, it is not merely one brave guerrilla who will have passed away. The last real opposition to the Taliban would have been removed. Already the regime controls 95 per cent of the country, although it is recognised as legitimate by only three other states. The incessant flow of refugees across Afghanistan's borders belies the claim that it has brought any real peace to the land it rules. With Masood removed, the rest of the world would somehow have to come to terms with the fact that the most fanatical Islamic zealots in the world were on the verge of achieving legitimacy.

Masood, aged 48 or 49, sustained head injuries on Sunday afternoon when two Arab visitors posing as journalists detonated a bomb in his office in his Afghan headquarters. The bomb was either inside the visitors' video camera or strapped round the waist of one of them. They gained access on the pretext of interviewing him. Both Arabs died and an aide of Masood's was also reported to have been killed.

The Taliban denied having any role in the attack. Its chief spokesman, Abdul Hai Mutmaen, told Reuters: "We are not involved in the incident. If we were, we would have proudly said that because he is our enemy." Mr Wali said: "The whole thing was organised by Pakistanis and some Arab circles, that was for sure." Pakistan and Saudi Arabia have been the most loyal allies of the Taliban since the regime rose to power. And it is the Taliban which will gain immeasurably if Masood dies.

Masood was an engineering student in Kabul in 1979 when the Russians invaded. Mustering his lightly armed guerrilla force in his home base high up in the Panjshir Valley, he repelled wave after wave of attacks, gaining a legendary reputation both among his men and far beyond Afghanistan. By 1989 the Russians had gone; three years later Masood, who had established a power base at Taliqan, close to the border with Tajikistan, became one of the most powerful men in the country when his ally Burhanuddin Rabbani became acting president of the newly inaugurated Islamic State of Afghanistan, and Masood became his minister of defence.

But although the Russians were long gone, Afghanistan's mayhem was only just getting under way. As far as the United Nations is concerned, Rabbani is still the President of Afghanistan, and Masood is, or was till yesterday, his Defence Minister. But that became a polite fiction seven years ago, when the new state was torn to pieces by bitterly feuding Mujahideen. Masood, ethnically a Tajik like Rabbani, was in effect just one warlord among a batch of them, each scrabbling for the power and wealth of his own fiefdom. Afghanistan's national identity, never very robust, was smashed into pieces.

Into this vacuum of state power roared the Taliban, drawn from exiles of the country's Pushtun majority who had been schooled in Islamic fundamentalism in primitive schools in Pakistan, fuelled by the funds of Pakistan and Saudi Arabia. Masood was forced back into the sort of role he had played during the war against the Soviet Union. A brilliant tactician, a moderate Muslim, he has outlasted all his rivals and until yesterday at least was the only one left fighting.

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