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Karzai Among Plot's Targets, Authorities Say

Asia: Afghanistan's exiled king and foreigners also were on the alleged hit list. Detainees number 160.


KABUL, Afghanistan — Targets of an alleged Afghan assassination conspiracy included foreigners, the country's exiled king and interim Prime Minister Hamid Karzai, authorities said Thursday, accusing those arrested of "undermining, threatening, sabotaging and harming this government."

Interior Minister Younis Qanooni said that about 300 opponents of Karzai's government had been arrested or detained in recent days and that 160 remained in custody. Authorities claimed to have seized bomb-detonating devices and documents outlining assassination plans. Qanooni said the plot never got beyond the planning stage.

Qanooni was among those on the hit list, Afghan security officials said, as was Defense Minister Mohammed Qassim Fahim and Mohammad Zaher Shah, the monarch who was exiled in 1973 and who is expected to return to Afghanistan this spring. Qanooni said the plot was aimed "against our foreign guests as well," but he did not specify whether he meant soldiers, peacekeepers, diplomats or civilians.

The majority of those arrested were connected with the Hezb-i-Islami party of warlord Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, who had returned from exile in Iran and was in western Afghanistan, according to Qanooni.

"These are people who have been accused. The accusations are not yet proven. An investigation is underway, and in phases it will determine whether they are innocent or guilty," Qanooni said.

But he added, "What I'd make clear is that they were engaged in undermining, threatening, sabotaging and harming this government."

It was difficult to determine to what extent the assassination threat was real or whether those arrested were engaged in legitimate political activities in trying to reorganize Hezb-i-Islami.

However, the arrests revealed the fault lines in Afghanistan's fragile peace as the United States and other outside powers attempt to push the nation toward a more democratic, pluralistic path.

Afghanistan's disparate forces are already beginning to jostle for power in the lead-up to this June's loya jirga, or grand council, which will decide Afghanistan's next leader and government. Afghan authorities charged that the plotters planned to target the council, throwing the country into confusion and threatening a return to civil war.

Political forces here are divided along tribal, ethnic and regional lines, and long-held antipathies form the biggest threat to a lasting peace.

Hezb-i-Islami is dominated by ethnic Pushtuns, while key security and foreign affairs posts in the interim government are held by ethnic Tajiks from the Northern Alliance. The alliance fought the Taliban from 1994, when the extremist Islamic movement emerged, until the militants' recent downfall as a result of the U.S. military campaign.

Although most of those arrested were Pushtuns, Qanooni strongly denied any political or ethnic motive.

"The issue has nothing to do with ethnicity. What it deals with is a plot against the people of Afghanistan and their desire to live peacefully," he said.

He insisted that no one was arrested for political activities. "These people have been in Kabul for a long time," he said. "It is only when the threat became evident that they were arrested."

The arrests were made by the National Directorate of Security, the domestic intelligence force, which is within the Interior Ministry.

Flight Lt. Anthony Marshall, a spokesman for the International Security Assistance Force, the British-led peacekeeping force here, said the arrests were part of an effort to tighten security in Kabul, the capital.

Lt. Col. Neal Peckham, another ISAF spokesman, said Afghan Interior Ministry forces found 47 automatic weapons in western Kabul in recent days. It was unclear whether there was a link between the weapons cache and the arrests.

One diplomatic source said a faction of the Hezb-i-Islami party had made recent overtures to the interim administration in a bid to bury past differences, but other gestures from party members appeared ill-intentioned.

Even in Afghanistan, where betrayals and defections are the rule, Hekmatyar stands out.

A prominent figure among the U.S.-backed moujahedeen that fought the country's Soviet occupiers from 1979 to 1989, he turned against other Afghan factions after the Soviets withdrew. In the early 1990s, Hekmatyar's forces relentlessly rocketed the Kabul area, fueling a civil war that killed about 50,000 people.

Among those believed to be arrested was former Hekmatyar ally Wahidullah Sabaun, a former finance minister in the Northern Alliance government, which the Taliban ousted from Kabul in 1996.

Sabaun, also a former member of Hezb-i-Islami, was angry when he was left out of the current interim administration, put in place after a summit in Germany late last year.

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