A Swedish journalist with dual British nationality was shot and killed in central Kabul this morning as the country braced itself for a surge in violence ahead of next month’s presidential elections.
Nils Horner, 51, was shot in the head with a silenced pistol while on his way to interview the survivor of a Taliban attack. The daylight shooting was in one of the capital’s most distinguished districts, Wazir Akbar Khan, where many diplomats and ex patriots have their homes and offices.
Mr Horner was Asia Correspondent for the Swedish public radio station, Sveriges Radios, and lived in Hong Kong. He had only been in Kabul for a couple of days when the attack happened but had previously reported from Afghanistan in 2001 when the Taliban were ousted from power.
Experts last night said an attack of this kind was unprecedented. The reasons behind it are still unclear, and the Taliban have so far maintained that they are not responsible. But its timing – and the fact that Mr Horner was on his way to interview a victim of their last attack on Kabul ex-pats – suggests they could be behind it.
Mr Horner was shot while walking down the street in the diplomatic district at 11.15 this morning after getting out of a Toyota Corolla around 100 yards from a luxury supermarket. He was on his way to interview a kebab chef on the site of a Taliban attack the man survived in January, when 21 people, 13 of whom were foreigners, were killed in a popular Lebanese restaurant.
The shooting took place just as a state funeral was concluding for vice-president Mohammad Qasim Fahim, who died at the weekend from a long-running heart problem. Security forces were already on high-alert and several streets near the shooting had been closed for Fahim’s funeral procession. Ordinarily there would be a strong police presence in Wazir Akbar Khan, but the security forces were focused on the route.
The gunmen have not been found by police though Mr Horner’s driver and translator, who were unharmed, are being held for questioning.
The attack comes less than a month before Afghanistan goes to the polls in the first round of voting for the presidential elections on 5 April. The Taliban pledged on Monday that they would do all they could to derail proceedings.
In their most explicit statement yet of their intention to disrupt the 2014 ballot, a Taliban spokesman warned Afghan citizens not to take part in the vote, saying: “We have given orders to our Mujahideen to use all force at their disposal to disrupt the upcoming sham elections and to target all workers, activists, callers, security apparatus and offices.”
Kate Clark of the Kabul-based think-tank, Afghanistan Analysts Network, said it was too early to say if there is a trend for targeting westerners in the city, since the attack was unique and the Taliban had not claimed responsibility. She said: “I think it’s an unprecedented case, someone being killed like this in broad daylight in Kabul. Not out on the margins of the city, but in the heart of the city.”
She said the Taliban denial should not necessarily be taken at face value but that the killing was out of keeping with their usual strategies. “The way he was killed with a gun with a silencer is not Taliban tactics,” she said. “It may not have been to do with him, it may have been a mistaken identity. He would have been a very strange Taliban target.”
Election-related violence has been increasing, with campaigners for the leading presidential candidate, Abdullah Abdullah, particularly targeted. Two of his campaigners were shot dead in the western city of Herat last month as they left their office, while his motorcade has been ambushed by gunmen.
Mahmood Gailani, a former MP and head of Dr Abdullah’s election campaign, told The Independent he expects violence to increase as the ballot gets closer. “It might get worse in a few days,” he said. “If they want to disturb the elections, now is a good time.”
Dr Abdullah is the only candidate so far who has publicly endorsed signing an agreement for a continued American military presence after Nato forces withdraw at the end of the year. Mr Gailani said this was causing his team to be victimised: “The main target is our team. Up until now there hasn’t been any incident or attack on the others.”
Additional reporting Aleem Agha