Afghanistan's President, Hamid Karzai, narrowly escaped assassination yesterday, when Taliban militants attacked a military parade in the capital, Kabul.
Witnesses described scenes of chaos as thousands of troops and dignitaries fled the city's main parade ground under fire from rocket-propelled grenades and machine guns. At least three people were killed, including an MP and a tribal leader who were sitting just a few metres away from the President's podium. Eleven more were injured.
It was the fourth attempt on Mr Karzai's life since he came to power more than five years ago.
Mr Karzai was due to make a speech at the ceremony, on a national holiday, to mark the end of Communist rule in Afghanistan. Instead he was bundled into an armoured 4x4 as Taliban gunmen, hidden in a nearby hotel room, opened fire on the VIP grandstand overlooking the parade ground. He later appeared on television saying that some suspects had been arrested and blamed "the enemy of Afghanistan" for the attack, which was claimed by the Taliban. The three attackers were killed.
Britain's ambassador, Sir Sherard Cowper-Coles, and William Wood, the American envoy, were among 200 foreign dignitaries and military officers at the event. Sir Sherard said he saw a rocket-propelled grenade fired from a mud compound before small-arms fire erupted around them. The first shots came during an artillery gun salute.
"We were about 15 rounds into the 21 gun salute when I noticed a puff of smoke in the distance, coming from a mud building at the southern end of the parade ground. It must have been a rocket-propelled grenade. Then the President's protective detail started firing southwards," he said.
Live television pictures showed two officials sitting close to President Karzai slump in their chairs when the shooting started, one of them collapsed on to the floor. The President was whisked away in a black 4x4, while the shooting continued for about 10 minutes.
There were hundreds of troops lined up on a large open square in front of the capital's grandest mosque, as part of the ceremonial review, but none of them had any ammunition, Sir Sherard said, so they started lying down or running.
Other soldiers, tasked to protect the President, began shooting back at the third floor window, a few hundred metres from the VIP stand where Sir Sherard was standing with Mr Wood.
The pair struggled to take cover on the exposed concrete stand. "We got down behind the parapets and our respective bodyguards frogmarched us to the back of the reviewing stands where there was chaos and more gunfire in all directions," said Sir Sherard. "The US ambassador's protected vehicle was there. We drove off followed by our respective close protection teams, to the American embassy."
"Everyone reacted professionally and quickly," said Mr Wood. Asked whether the attack was likely to heighten security fears in Kabul, he said that "terrorist attacks have dramatically gone down in Kabul, but everyone is aware of the risk and people do a very good job protecting against it".
The attack came shortly after President Karzai had driven up and down his soldiers' ranks in an American Humvee armoured vehicle. He was due to make a speech before saluting a fly-by of Afghanistan's new attack helicopters, transport planes and L-39 jets.
Sir Sherard said the incident reminded him of the assassination of President Anwar Sadat, which took place in similar circumstances, when he was a young diplomat in Cairo.
Security at the parade ground was supposed to be tight, following an announcement last month that Afghan forces are ready to take over from the Nato-led International Security Assistance Force in Kabul. Police officers at the parade ground blamed the Ministry of Defence for failing to prevent the attack, but the MoD troops who stormed the hotel room where the attackers were based insisted police and intelligence officials should have cleared the buildings looking over the parade.
The soldiers said the three gunmen in the hotel room were armed with two AK-47 assault rifles and a PK light anti-aircraft gun, as well as boxes of ammunition and grenades.
A soldier who identified himself as Sergeant Amin said troops arrested more than 30 people at the hotel, one of five buildings more than one storey high near the parade ground.
Gordon Brown phoned Mr Karzai moments after the attack to express his relief at the President's safety. A gunman tried to shoot the President in Kandahar in 2002. In 2004, his helicopter survived a rocket attack en route to Gardez, and in June 2007, a dozen rockets landed close to where he was giving a speech in Ghazni. His father was murdered by the Taliban in 1999.
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