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Slaying of Afghan peace negotiator Rabbani remains a mystery

The Taliban disavows knowledge of the assassination of Burhanuddin Rabbani, a striking departure from usual practice. Mourners throng the streets near the former Afghan president's home.

September 21, 2011|By Laura King, Los Angeles Times
  • Afghan elders and former mujahedin commanders gather in Herat to pay tribute to Burhanuddin Rabbani, the peace negotiator and former Afghan president who was assassinated in Kabul.
Afghan elders and former mujahedin commanders gather in Herat to pay tribute… (Jalil Rezayee / European…)

Reporting from Kabul, Afghanistan — Mourners thronged the streets of the capital on Wednesday near the home of slain Afghan peace negotiator Burhanuddin Rabbani, while the mystery deepened as to who was behind his assassination a day earlier.

Rabbani's death in a suicide bombing cast a perhaps irreversible pall over prospects for drawing the Taliban into negotiations, even though the peace commission he headed had made little progress in the year since its creation. That in turn could hamper Western plans to wind down the combat mission of the NATO force by 2014.

Even many Afghans who decried Rabbani's warlord past and his role in igniting the country's devastating civil war of the 1990s saw his violent exit from the scene as boding extremely ill for peace efforts.

"The peace process is finished," said 65-year-old Khuda Dad, who was among the crowd that converged on the well-to-do and heavily guarded Kabul neighborhood where the killing took place.

Nearly 24 hours after an assailant claiming to be a senior envoy from the Taliban set off explosives hidden in his turban, killing Rabbani and seriously wounding a senior associate, the militant movement posted a statement on its website disavowing prior knowledge of the killing.

"Our information is not complete regarding the matter," said the statement issued in the name of spokesman Zabiullah Mujahid. "We don't want to say anything about this at the moment."

That stance, of course, does not exonerate the group, but it represented a striking departure from usual practice. Insurgents generally move swiftly to claim responsibility for actions such as assassinations of Afghan officials or attacks on Western troops, sometimes even while the assault is taking place, delivering boastful statements by text, telephone and email.

In this instance, the Taliban leadership could be trying to avoid inflaming public sentiment against it, because of the 71-year-old Rabbani's stature as a respected religious elder. A former Afghan president, he was one of the founders of a hard-line Islamic political party.

Also, the insurgency is far from monolithic, and a splinter faction could have carried out the killing without guidance from the central leadership. Many inside and outside Afghan officialdom voiced suspicion of a role by Pakistan, which has sheltered insurgent groups on its side of the frontier.

More details emerged Wednesday about the attacker, a man who called himself Esmatullah. He had apparently managed to secure the trust of several members of the High Peace Council, which Rabbani chaired, by presenting a credible cover story about why he urgently needed to convey a message in person. He had to wait several days for the meeting because Rabbani was traveling outside the country, fellow council members said.

They also said Afghan President Hamid Karzai was consulted about the request and had urged Rabbani to proceed with the meeting. Karzai arrived back in Afghanistan on Wednesday after cutting short a visit to New York for the gathering of the United Nations General Assembly.

Reflecting Afghanistan's sharp ethnic divisions, the crowd of mourners near Rabbani's home was dominated by fellow members of his Tajik ethnic group, with Pashtuns — from whom the Taliban movement is largely drawn — in little evidence. Grim-faced men waved green banners while loudspeakers blared out Koranic verses.

Funeral plans remained unclear, but associates said Rabbani would probably be buried either on a Kabul hilltop near his home or in his native northern province of Badakhshan.

The peace council pledged to try to move ahead with its work but acknowledged that emotions were too raw to proceed any time soon.

"This caused a lot of heartache," said Mohammad Ismail Qasemyar, the council's international relations advisor. "The council and the government of Afghanistan opened their arms and were met with bombs and explosives. It's a very painful reality."

laura.king@latimes.com

Special correspondent Aimal Yaqubi contributed to this report.

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