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Five Killed, 64 Injured in Jalalabad Bombing

Afghanistan: Explosion at a crowded market appears to have been an attempt to kill the defense minister.

April 09, 2002|DAVID ZUCCHINO and RONE TEMPEST | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

JALALABAD, Afghanistan — In what appeared to be an assassination attempt against Afghanistan's defense minister, a fiery bomb exploded Monday in a lunchtime market packed with flag-waving schoolchildren dispatched to greet the official.

At least five people were killed, including two children and a teenage boy, and 64 people were injured. The bomb missed the heavily armed convoy of Defense Minister Mohammed Qassim Fahim by just 200 yards.

Tensions had been high in this eastern provincial capital because of opposition to a government crackdown on opium poppy cultivation and simmering hostility toward Fahim, an ethnic Tajik deeply resented by Pushtuns who dominate the region. In the last two nights, unsigned posters have appeared, warning that anyone supporting the government risks death and that "killing government officials is legitimate."

In an attempt to build crowds for Fahim, teachers emptied classrooms. "We were told everyone should come out to the streets and bring flags and flowers," said 8-year-old Abdul Wahab. "Our teachers told us that if we didn't show up we would be counted five days absent."

The bombing came just days after the interim government rounded up about 300 members of the Hezb-i-Islami political party, most of them Pushtuns, on charges of plotting to overthrow the government. Hezb-i-Islami officials described the arrests as an anti-Pushtun campaign by ethnic Tajik ministers. About 160 people remain in custody.

The ethnic conflict added a new layer of fear and anxiety to a country already on edge because of armed factions jockeying for position ahead of a national assembly scheduled in June.

In an interview Sunday night, Haji Mohammed Zaman, the regional security chief, had dismissed security concerns with a wave of his hand.

That same evening, Zaman's officers tried and failed to organize soldiers in ill-fitting uniforms into a coherent formation during a dress rehearsal for the defense minister's visit. Their poor training was evident in the moments after the bomb exploded, when attempts to turn around the convoy of dignitaries produced gridlock as victims lay bleeding and dying.

Vehicles bumped back and forth for several minutes before security officials finally drove Fahim, dressed in a brown business suit and tie, to a military base outside Jalalabad. He delivered a scheduled two-hour speech on ethnic unity, then returned to the capital, Kabul, by helicopter a day earlier than planned.

"They killed civilians and students who were there in the spirit of happiness, and they made it into a sad occasion," Fahim said. "The attack was meant not only to kill me. They wanted to cause a disruption and send a message."

Haji Abdul Qadir, the governor of Nangarhar province, said: "This is the work of criminals. We will catch them in a few days."

No group claimed responsibility for the attack. The appearance of the Pushtun-language posters, which denounced the interim government as a cabal of "non-Muslim" traitors conspiring with the United States and Britain, suggested continuing underground support for the Pushtun-dominated Taliban.

Abdul Rahim, a Nangarhar provincial security officer who witnessed the explosion, called the bombing at the Chauk Talashi market an assassination attempt against Fahim and local political and military officials, who were part of the convoy.

"It's obvious the convoy was the target, and they just missed," he said.

The explosion splattered snack shops and fruit carts with blood. A row of shops was burned and buckled, and the Afghan flags strung for the occasion were left shredded. The shoes and hats and tattered robes of the victims were lined up neatly in the dust, awaiting the arrival of relatives to claim them.

Security officers at the scene said Fahim was scheduled to stop at the market at noon to visit the construction site of an underground shopping arcade, the first government project since the Taliban was driven from the city in November.

It was not known whether the bomb, which exploded at noon, was triggered by a timing device or remote control. Soldiers said it had been hidden beneath a diesel-powered generator and attached to the generator's battery. Generators are common in Afghan cities, where the electrical supply is spotty.

"I was just telling the shopkeepers to close up because the motorcade was coming--and boom!--the generator went flying and bodies were everywhere," said Noor Agah, a soldier who said he escaped injury because he was standing behind a tree.

"I picked up a body and the arm came off," Agah said. "He was dead. Then I saw a body that was only pieces of a person."

One of the victims was 15-year-old Haroon Gul, who worked in one of the open-front restaurants.

"He was just working there selling cakes and pastries," said his mother, Saima Gul, wailing in grief.

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