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Afghanistan: Responsibility For Attack On Fahim Still Unclear

A series of incidents over the past week have disturbed what was already an uneasy calm in Afghanistan. The most serious was yesterday's attempted assassination of the country's interim Defense Minister, Mohammad Fahim.

Kabul, 9 April 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Mohammad Fahim, the defense minister in Afghanistan's interim government, narrowly escaped an attempt on his life yesterday when a bomb exploded near his car.

In an interview today with RFE/RL, Defense Ministry spokesman Mirjan discussed the attack.

The attack occurred yesterday in the eastern city of Jalalabad, where Fahim was traveling with a contingent of politicians from Kabul to inspect military installations and persuade local farmers to accept a government deal on halting the growth of poppy crops. The interim administration is offering $200 per acre to all farmers who agree to give up growing opium poppies, the country's most profitable cash crop and the starting point of a massive drug industry that supplies the majority of Europe's heroin.

At least four people were killed and 18 injured when an explosive device went off yesterday in Jalalabad just as a convoy carrying Fahim passed by. Mirjan said the defense minister went on to fulfill his duties that day without further incident:

"Praise be to God the minister was not injured and he is safe. All of his escorts are also safe. He fulfilled his mission successfully [in Jalalabad] and then returned to the capital of Afghanistan, Kabul. And all of them are safe."

Mirjan said Fahim has undertaken similar trips recently to the Afghan cities of Herat, Kandahar, and Mazar-i-Sharif to meet local dignitaries ahead of June's Loya Jirga, or grand council.

The multiethnic council will bring together politicians and tribal and religious leaders tasked with creating an 18-month transitional authority to lead the country to democratic elections. The Loya Jirga process is seen as vital if the country is to remain peaceful and begin badly-needed reconstruction after 25 years of conflict.

The interim government and the international community believe a successful and problem-free Loya Jirga is essential if peace and stability are to take root in the country.

Mirjan says the government believes that those behind yesterday's attack want to destabilize the country ahead of the Loya Jirga:

"The people who were responsible for this incident are against the peace process and implementation of stability here and they are against the Loya Jirga. They want to create such problems everywhere in the country."

Mirjan says the government does not believe just one group is plotting to destabilize the country. But he adds it is believed that one man in particular, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, is deeply involved. Hekmatyar led the largest of the mujahedin resistance groups during the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan during the 1980s. After the Soviet withdrawal, Hekmatyar was a key instigator of the prolonged Afghan civil war that followed as he battled to become the country's supreme leader.

Among his enemies was Ahmad Shah Massoud, the leader of the Northern Alliance and a close ally of Fahim. Massoud and Hekmatyar eventually agreed to a shaky peace deal, making Hekmatyar prime minister in a fragile government where Massoud was defense minister and Fahim head of the security services.

That government was overthrown by the fundamentalist Taliban militia and its allies in the Al-Qaeda terrorist network. After Massoud was assassinated last September by suicide bombers suspected of working for Al-Qaeda, Fahim became the virtual leader of the Northern Alliance.

During the Taliban era, Hekmatyar found exile in Iran. He returned to Afghanistan only recently, and his whereabouts are now unknown. But reports say he has called for a jihad, or holy struggle, against Western forces battling Al-Qaeda and Taliban fighters still in Afghanistan.

Last week, interim security forces arrested some 300 people they said were plotting to overthrow the government on orders from Hekmatyar and his former military chief, Sabawoon. Sabawoon is currently under house arrest in the capital.

Mirjan says those arrested last week are still being investigated. He says the government has not made any direct links between Hekmatyar and yesterday's attempted assassination of Fahim, but that Hekmatyar's associates are reason for concern:

"But there's no doubt that Gulbuddin Hekmatyar has a close relationship with Al-Qaeda and the Taliban. He has a terror-oriented relationship with them, because Gulbuddin Hekmatyar did some terrorist actions like Mullah Omar and Osama bin Laden. Some of the rascals and seditious people who were loyal to Hekmatyar after the fall of the mujahedin government joined the Taliban, but after the fall of the Taliban they gave their loyalty to Sabawoon."

Mirjan says the government does not believe Fahim was targeted for personal revenge or because the country's largest ethnic group, the Pashtuns, resent the fact that Fahim and the two other so-called "power ministers" -- Foreign Minister Abdullah Abdullah and Interior Minister Yunus Qanooni -- belong to the minority Tajik peoples.

He also rejects the suggestion that those involved in the Afghan drug trade may have tried to kill Fahim: "No one actually wants to cultivate poppies anymore. All of the people of Afghanistan support the interim government on this matter. In the past, [poppies] were cultivated by the Taliban and the Al-Qaeda organization. But now if anybody is willing to cultivate poppies in Afghanistan, he is not considered an Afghan but a mercenary, and those people will be prevented from doing such things."

But clashes between officials and poppy farmers led to at least eight deaths in the Helmand and Nangarhar provinces on 7-8 April when police opened fire on farmers demonstrating in favor of opium production and one official was killed by demonstrators.

Mirjan said that the government hopes to determine this week who was behind the attempt to murder Fahim.