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Afghanistan: Rift In Government Surfaces Over Killing Of Minister

A rift has surfaced within Afghanistan's interim administration over the killing of Aviation Minister Abdul Rahman. Interim leader Hamid Karzai says the killing was a premeditated assassination plot by Rahman's political rivals stemming from a personal vendetta. But Foreign Minister Abdullah Abdullah -- seeking to distance his Northern Alliance faction from members of his party accused in the case -- says the killing was not a premeditated plot.

Kabul, 21 February 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Afghan interim Foreign Minister Abdullah Abdullah is seeking to distance his Northern Alliance political faction from the recent killing of a rival minister at the Kabul airport.

Abdullah has gone on record with a statement that conflicts with the remarks of interim leader Karzai -- namely, Karzai's allegation that the killing was the result of a premeditated assassination plot stemming from a personal vendetta.

Karzai has accused three high-ranking security officials in Abdullah's Jamiat-i-Islami party of plotting the murder of Civil Aviation Minister Abdul Rahman. The interim leader named men from the Interior Ministry, the Justice Ministry, and the intelligence services as primary suspects who are thought to have fled to Saudi Arabia.

Karzai says at least five lower-ranking suspects -- including several security guards from the Interior Ministry -- have been arrested in Kabul. Those suspects also are all members of Jamiat-i-Islami.

The highest-ranking officials in Jamiat-i-Islami include Foreign Minister Abdullah, Defense Minister Mohammad Qaseem Fahim, and Interior Minister Yunis Qanooni.

The Interior Ministry was the source of initial reports that blamed Rahman's killing on a crowd of elderly hajj pilgrims who had been waiting up to 72 hours at the airport for flights to Mecca.

But witnesses told RFE/RL's correspondent in Kabul that it was three "young and robust men" who moved heavy scaffolding up to Rahman's aircraft after it had been surrounded by the pilgrims for nearly two hours. The witnesses said the men climbed the scaffolding, smashed the cockpit window to enter the plane and threw Rahman's body into the crowd, where a melee developed.

Officials from the International Security Assistance Force say they think Rahman bled to death from knife wounds. It is unclear whether he was stabbed while aboard the plane or after he had been thrown to the ground.

Abdullah told RFE/RL on 17 February that it was three "disobedient bodyguards" of the accused senior officials who had boarded the plane and thrown Rahman to the ground. Abdullah said the bodyguards also had passed a message to Rahman from the pilgrims demanding that he resign.

"They had passed the message, but in fact those three people who boarded the plane and threw him out have been captured -- disobedient bodyguards," Abdullah said.

In reaction to newspaper stories that have appeared around the world quoting Karzai's allegations of a plot by members of Jamiat-i-Islami, Abdullah called a press conference yesterday. He suggested that pilgrims had been involved in Rahman's killing after all.

"It was not a premeditated plot. It was an incident, which involves several factors. The anger of the hajjis was real. The fact that the hajjis were not given service in those 36 hours, or more or less, it added to the anger of the hajjis," Abdullah said.

But when asked to clarify his definition of "premeditated plot," Abdullah said he meant that no one in the administration thinks officials from the government or from the state air carrier, Ariana Airlines, had intentionally incited an angry mob by preventing the pilgrims from traveling to Mecca for several days.

"Among those pilgrims and among those suspects there might have been people who had personal feelings -- definite personal feelings -- against Dr. Abdul Rahman. Those people might have misused this [situation with an angry crowd as an] opportunity. But that should come out as a result of the investigation," Abdullah said.

When pressed further, Abdullah also refused to retract his earlier statement that government bodyguards had been involved. He also refused to say that any non-government employees had killed Rahman.

Interim Education Minister Rassoulo Amin said yesterday that the evidence he has seen so far supports Karzai's allegations that the killing was an inside conspiracy. Amin is a member of a five-member committee that was appointed by Karzai to investigate Rahman's death.

Karzai says it was Defense Minister Fahim and Interior Minister Qanooni who first told him that the killing had been carried out by members of their party.

The personal vendetta that both Karzai and Abdullah have spoken about stems from Rahman's former relationship with Jamiat-i-Islami. During the early 1990s, Rahman had been a personal adviser to the party's guerrilla leader -- the late Ahmad Shah Massoud.

But Rahman left the party and fled to Paris after a dispute with Massoud. He later joined Karzai's so-called Rome Group -- which supports former Afghan king Zahir Shah as the man who should lead the transitional government due to take power in June. Before Massoud's assassination in early September, the guerrilla leader reportedly told other members of his faction to kill Rahman if he ever returned to Afghanistan.

Jamiat-i-Islami controls power within the interim administration disproportionately to the number of its mostly ethnic Tajik supporters in the country.

Political observers in Kabul say Karzai's allegations of a plot involving so many members of Jamiat-i-Islami may damage the party's attempts to maintain a similar hold on power when a loya jirga, or grand council, names a transitional government in a few months.

The rift that has surfaced between Karzai and Abdullah over Rahman's killing also is a worrying sign for Afghanistan's fragile interim administration and the country's entire post-Taliban transition process.

Concerns about the case also could threaten the disbursement of some $4.5 billion in international aid pledged for Afghan reconstruction during a donors conference in Tokyo in January.