Kabul, 8 April 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Tension increased today in Afghanistan after an apparent attempt to assassinate Defense Minister Mohammad Fahim. A bomb exploded near Fahim's car as he drove to a meeting in the eastern Afghan city of Jalalabad. He escaped injury, but police said four bystanders were killed by the blast and 18 wounded. Nobody immediately claimed responsibility.
Today's attack is the latest in a series of incidents that many fear are deliberate attempts to destabilize the uneasy peace that reigns in most of Afghanistan.
Last week, Afghanistan's interim government said it had arrested around 600 people suspected of involvement in a coup attempt. A few days later, the government said 250 people were still under arrest but that they were being held under suspicion of trying to cause unrest rather than snatch power in a coup.
The multinational peacekeeping force, ISAF, based in the capital, Kabul, reports escalating robberies and violent attacks against the minority Hazara community in the city, attacks that appear to be aimed at stirring up ethnic hatred.
Early yesterday, an ISAF base was the target of a rocket attack by unknown assailants. ISAF spokesman Lieutenant Colonel Neal Peckham today said it was the most serious attack so far against peacekeepers. "We were able to identify the firing points with the assistance of the Kabul police. At that site, we have found four rockets still on the rails, three of which were good to go, although they didn't fire, and there are indications there that two missiles have left the firing point. So we are now looking back between the base and the firing point to see if we can find any evidence of a missile that's dropped short."
Peckham theorized that the rocket attack may be part of an effort to disrupt the upcoming Loya Jirga process, or the expected return of former Afghan King Zahir Shah. "We are coming towards the return of the king. We are coming towards the start of the Loya Jirga process. There are elements within the society here who are opposed to it."
Fahim and senior military commanders were in Jalalabad, capital of Nangrahar Province, to inspect military installations and persuade local farmers to accept the interim government's offer of $494 per hectare for not planting opium poppies. Most of Europe's heroin is manufactured from Afghan poppies.
Later, at least one Afghan official was reported dead after being shot at a village elsewhere in Nangrahar while collecting information about poppy-field locations. The killers were reportedly Afghan Shinwari tribesmen who grow poppies and who believe the government's cash offer to stop the cultivation is too low.
Yesterday, eight farmers were killed in the southern province of Helmand for protesting against the government's campaign against poppy planting.
Others involved in the drugs trade, the most lucrative industry in Afghanistan, could also have mounted the attack.
Government ministers and officials were saying little this afternoon about the attack on Fahim. One official at the Interior Ministry, who would not give his name, said Fahim is safe and blamed the attack on Taliban and Al-Qaeda forces.
Fahim is considered one of the most powerful figures in Afghanistan. He was a senior lieutenant for more than two decades for Ahmad Shah Massoud, the Panjshiri military commander and political leader who fought against the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan in the 1980s and then led the Northern Alliance fighters against the Taliban.
After Massoud was assassinated last September by suicide bombers suspected of working for Al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden, Fahim became the de facto leader of the Northern Alliance.
The Northern Alliance forms the most powerful component of the present Afghan interim government, and Fahim's position would certainly make him a target for Al-Qaeda and Taliban forces. But Fahim has many other enemies.
The Pashtun tribe, which is the largest ethnic group in Afghanistan, resents Fahim, a Tajik, for holding the position of defense minister, as they do Tajiks for occupying the other key positions of interior and foreign ministers. The Taliban regime was almost exclusively Pashtun.
Fahim was in charge of security during the early 1990s, in territory controlled by Massoud, including Kabul. He was accused by organizations such as Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International of using torture and murder against opponents. Some believe today's attack may have been an act of revenge by the relatives of those who suffered during those times.