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Afghan Leader Targeted in Attack

Rocket misses helicopter taking President Karzai to a school ceremony south of Kabul. He says the incident won't deter him from campaigning.

September 17, 2004|Hamida Ghafour | Special to The Times

KABUL, Afghanistan — Afghan President Hamid Karzai survived an assassination attempt Thursday when a rocket was fired at his helicopter as it prepared to land near the southeastern city of Gardez.

The rocket missed the helicopter by about 300 yards, a U.S. military spokesman said in Kabul, the capital. Karzai was not hurt, and the helicopter immediately flew back to Kabul.

"The president was not in imminent danger," the spokesman said.

The attack underscored the fragile security in Afghanistan as the country prepares for its first presidential election Oct. 9.

Karzai was traveling to Gardez, a city in Paktia province that is about 60 miles south of Kabul, to open a school. About 400 people were awaiting his arrival when the attack occurred.

Once back in the capital, Karzai made light of the incident and said his American security guards overreacted.

"It was like the padding paws of a cat," he said, quoting an Afghan proverb meaning that the attack was not serious. "We were about to land. I saw a big crowd of people, but suddenly the chopper took off and speeded up.

"We thought something might be wrong with the engine. Later they told us that we are going to not land, [because] there was a rocket attack."

He added: "I think our guys were really taking a lot of precautions for no reason. It was nothing actually. The governor [of Paktia] told me that it was a rocket that hit a house door."

Paktia borders Pakistan, and the province is reportedly a key entry point to Afghanistan for fighters loyal to the ousted Taliban regime.

A man identifying himself as a Taliban spokesman claimed responsibility for the attack and said that all 18 presidential candidates would be targeted. His claims could not be independently confirmed.

Karzai has escaped at least one other attempt on his life. In September 2002, a gunman tried to kill Karzai as he left the palace of the governor in the southern province of Kandahar. Karzai's U.S. military bodyguards returned fire, killing the gunman and two others.

After that attack, the State Department replaced Karzai's military bodyguards with security guards from DynCorp, a Virginia-based company.

The bulky ex-soldiers are armed with assault rifles and pistols, and several are always within a few feet of Karzai. He spends most of his time in Kabul's heavily fortified presidential palace.

Asked Thursday whether he would campaign outside Kabul in light of the attack, Karzai said: "I will go to the provinces."

The president said he regretted that Thursday's visit was canceled, because tribal elders, provincial officials and others had been let down.

"I think we should have landed. We should have continued the program. There were thousands of people. I am sorry that we didn't do so, because that's what governments do," he said.

Karzai said security measures had become "very tough" in the run-up to the election and added that he would try to "spread my voice over the radio's airwaves."

Karzai was chosen in June 2002 by a loya jirga, or grand council, to be the country's transitional leader until elections could be held. If he wins the Oct. 9 vote, he will serve a five-year term.

On Thursday, eight of Karzai's 17 rivals, including his main challenger, former Education Minister Yunis Qanooni, called for a one-month delay in the voting, Reuters news agency reported.

The candidates said insufficient time had been allowed for the campaign, given the lack of security and logistical problems in the provinces.

The elections have been delayed twice. About 1,000 people, including aid workers, militants, civilians and Afghan and foreign troops, have been killed in the last year.

A Pentagon spokesman said Thursday that 700 soldiers from the Army's 82nd Airborne Division would be sent to Afghanistan to help boost security for the election, which would bring the number of U.S. troops in the country to nearly 19,000.

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