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Afghanistan: Masood's Fate Unclear After Apparent Assassination Attempt

Afghan opposition leader Ahmed Shah Masood was apparently wounded in an assassination attempt in northern Afghanistan, but it is not clear how serious his injuries were. Masood's spokesman says the leader of the main group opposed to Taliban rule in Afghanistan survived the attack, but ITAR-TASS reported this morning that Masood had died. His whereabouts are also unclear.

Prague, 10 September 2001 (RFE/RL) -- The fate of Afghan opposition leader Ahmed Shah Masood remains unclear a day after he was the victim of an apparent assassination attempt near his home in the north of the country.

A spokesman for Masood, Muhammad Yunes Kanuni, talking to our correspondent by phone from northern Afghanistan, says Masood was lightly wounded but is okay and resting at a hospital inside Afghanistan.

"[Masood] was lightly wounded on his leg and hand. Right now he feels fine. The doctors have assured us that he is right now in one of the hospitals inside Afghanistan."

News agencies yesterday reported Masood was injured at his home in when a bomb allegedly carried by two men identified as Arab journalists exploded. Reports said the bomb was concealed in a video camera and that the two Arabs and an aide to Masood died in the explosion.

That version of events was reiterated today by Kanuni, who added that another official of the exiled Afghani government was seriously wounded in the attack.

"During this attack, our ambassador to India Masood Khalili was more seriously wounded. One of the employees of the Afghan Foreign Ministry called Asem was killed, together with the two terrorists."

Kanuni blamed the attack on the Taliban. But he also pointed the finger of blame at Osama bin Laden and the secret services of Pakistan, one of the few governments to recognize the Taliban government in Afghanistan.

"Ahmed Shah Masood was the target of an assassination attempt organized by the Pakistani [intelligence service] ISI and Osama bin Laden. It was a suicide attack. Thank God, he has survived this attack."

The Taliban has not reacted publicly to the attack.

Bin Laden, believed to be living in Afghanistan, is wanted by the United States in connection with the bombings of two U.S. embassies in Africa in 1998. The Taliban has refused to hand over bin Laden in spite of UN sanctions against the Taliban meant to prompt them to do just that.

Earlier this morning, the Russian agency ITAR-TASS filed a report out of Moscow saying Masood had died of injuries suffered in an attack at his stronghold in Takhar province. The ITAR-TASS report quoted unnamed sources in Dushanbe, the capital of neighboring Tajikistan, where some reports said Masood had been rushed to for treatment shortly after the attempt on his life.

Afghani embassy staff in Dushanbe deny Masood was or is in the Tajik capital, the de facto center of the Afghani government in exile, opposed to Taliban rule.

Masood's brother Vali said today that his brother was alive. Contacted in London by our correspondent, he said he believed his brother was wounded but otherwise okay.

Masood, the commander of Afghan opposition Northern Alliance and loyal to the ousted government of Burhanuddin Rabbani, is viewed as the biggest obstacle to the Taliban militia's efforts to rule all of Afghanistan.

The Taliban captured the capital Kabul in 1996 and controls about 90 percent of the country.

Masood was a high-profile official in Rabbani's government, serving as defense minister. He was also active in the Afghan resistance to the Soviet occupation from 1979 to 1989, earning the 49-year-old ethnic Tajik commander the nom de guerre, "The Lion of the Panjshir."

In the West, Masood is widely viewed as a favorable alternative to the Taliban and the militia's extremist brand of Islam.

The Taliban has routinely been criticized in the West for their failure to uphold basic human rights, especially when it comes to their treatment of women.

Relations between the Taliban and the West have been strained recently by the trial in Kabul of eight Western aid workers who stand accused of spreading Christianity in Afghanistan, a charge that can carry the death penalty.

Hoping to firm up support in the West, Masood in April paid a visit to France, where he held a private meeting with Foreign Minister Hubert Vedrine and addressed the European Parliament in Strasbourg. After talks with Vedrine, Masood told reporters that "any help that countries can give us for reconquering our country -- we need it."

At the time, the president of the European parliament, Nicola Fontaine, said it was important that "democratic nations clearly show they do not tolerate the existence of a political system that denies the most elementary rights of human beings."

In an interview with the AFP news agency in June, Masood was optimistic his Northern Alliance would eventually overcome the Taliban and he would someday rule the country.

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    Tony Wesolowsky

    Tony Wesolowsky is a senior correspondent for RFE/RL in Prague, covering Belarus, Ukraine, Russia, and Central Europe, as well as energy issues. His work has also appeared in The Philadelphia Inquirer, the Christian Science Monitor, and the Bulletin Of The Atomic Scientists.