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Afghanistan: Killing Of Afghan Minister Heightens Government Tensions

  • Ron Synovitz

The beating to death on 14 February of Afghanistan's civil aviation minister by a mob at Kabul's airport has raised tensions between competing factions of the interim administration. From Kabul, RFE/RL correspondent Ron Synovitz reports on the death and the political ramifications of the incident.

Kabul, 15 February 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Afghanistan's interim Interior Ministry initially said a group of pilgrims waiting to travel from Kabul to Mecca to take part in the hajj were responsible for the fatal beating yesterday of civil aviation and tourism minister, Abdul Rahman.

[Afghanistan's interim leader Hamid Karzai said late today that the killing of the minister was a conspiracy. Karzai charged that Rahman was killed by people who planned it, and that his death "had nothing to do with the hajjis," referring to travelers on their way to Mecca to fulfill their Muslim religious duty.

He said the men responsible include generals and officials of the intelligence service and Justice Ministry. Three suspects are believed to have escaped on flights to Saudi Arabia.

A statement read by Culture Minister Sayed Raheem said four people had been arrested. Karzai said Afghan authorities are asking Saudi Arabia to arrest the suspects and send them back to Afghanistan.]

RFE/RL's correspondent in Kabul reports the killing may have serious political ramifications for Afghanistan's fragile interim administration.

There were allegations earlier today by some officials in Kabul that the incident is linked to a dispute between a Northern Alliance faction that controls the Interior Ministry and a faction of royalists who support the former king, Zahir Shah. Each group is competing for control over the future of the country.

Others in the interim administration suggested privately that the killing may be related to personal tensions between Rahman and his former colleagues in the Northern Alliance.

Rahman, who was from the northeastern province of Nuristan, had once been the political adviser of the late Ahmad Shah Massoud's mujahedin party -- the Shura-i-Nazar. But Rahman left the Shura-i-Nazar several years ago after a dispute with Massoud.

By the time of the Bonn conference that set the groundwork for Afghanistan's post-Taliban transition in early December, Rahman had switched his allegiance to the so-called Rome Group -- an alliance of Afghan expatriates who want Zahir Shah appointed to head the transitional government due to take power in June.

Both the interim Interior and Defense ministries are controlled by members of the Shura-i-Nazar -- a faction that includes Panshiris and Tajiks who dominate much of the current administration and who want to maintain that dominance when the transitional government is established by a loya jirga in a few months' time.

Interim leader Hamid Karzai early today appointed a five-member commission to investigate what happened at Kabul airport yesterday -- and why security officers from the Interior Ministry who were supposed to protect Rahman failed to prevent him from being killed.

Witnesses to yesterday's beating told RFE/RL that a crowd of more than 1,000 pilgrims became angry after not being able to get a flight to the hajj pilgrimage in the Muslim holy city of Mecca.

Among them was Bashir Ahmad, a man from Parwan province north of Kabul who was at the airport to see his father off on a trip to Mecca: "Our problem was with the airport and the civil aviation administration. They could not prepare the flight of hajji [pilgrims] in a proper manner. This carelessness made both the women and men worried and annoyed. One old woman [who had been waiting for about 24 hours] even died there [yesterday] because of the cold."

Abdul Latif, a witness from the northern province of Mazar, said the mood turned ugly when Rahmad arrived to get his own flight to New Delhi. The airport was crowded with people who had waited as long as three days for their own plane to arrive for Mecca.

"It was just about 5:30 p.m. [local time] last evening that the minister, along with some other people, wanted to leave here for India. In the meantime, the hajjis started a protest against him," Latif said. "I myself was there in the protest as well. We told him that he could not go unless we were allowed to leave for the hajj [in Saudi Arabia]."

Latif said a few men ran in front of the Ariana Airlines plane after Rahman had boarded it. They prevented it from taking off and a large crowd then formed around the aircraft.

"He did not come off the plane [at first]. He stayed on the plane and after that, the Hajis started the protest," Latif said.

After about two hours, a group of men managed to board the plane and force the minister off. Sources say the minister was beaten severely and received several knife wounds before his bodyguards arrived in his car and drove him away. It remains unclear whether he died on the tarmac or later at a hospital.

Today, senior officials in the interim administration gathered at Rahman's home in Kabul for a wake. An Ariana Airlines official who was injured in the incident told RFE/RL today that he was too tired to discuss the matter.

Although troops from the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) have a barracks close to where the attack occurred, spokesmen for the British and U.S. militaries say that the civilian part of the airport is not an area where they are supposed to patrol.

Colonel Wayland Parker, the U.S. liaison officer to the ISAF, explained the division of security responsibilities. He said that Northern Alliance troops were patrolling the outer perimeter of the airport while Interior Ministry police controlled all of the security inside the civilian areas of the terminal and the runway for civilian planes.

"The interim administration had security there to do that specific mission [with Rahman's departure]. It was a very clear delineation of responsibility that that [civilian] portion of the airfield was secured by the interim administration folks. The ISAF [section of the airfield] was some distance away," Parker said.

Although the crowd had surrounded Rahman's airplane for more than two hours before he was forced out of the plane, Parker told RFE/RL today that ISAF did not receive any request for backup assistance from the interim Interior Ministry.

Within hours of the attack, the security forces at the airport allowed two civilian planes to take away about 900 hajj pilgrims to Mecca. Included in the group were witnesses to the killing -- and possibly some members of the crowd who were involved. Kabul Radio reports today that several men were detained for questioning, and that authorities are searching for one man whom they describe as an orchestrator of the attack.