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Afghanistan: Former Taliban Official Denies Knowledge Of Bin Laden's Involvement In Massoud Murder

On 16 August, the Associated Press issued a story that quoted a former senior Taliban official as saying he had knowledge that Osama bin Laden had personally ordered the assassination of Northern Alliance commander Ahmad Shah Massoud two days before the events of 11 September. Now, however, that official is denying he ever made such comments.

Prague, 19 August 2002 (RFE/RL) -- On 9 September 2001, two suicide bombers presenting themselves as television reporters detonated a bomb during an interview with Ahmad Shah Massoud, killing the Northern Alliance's legendary commander.

There has been speculation ever since then that Osama bin Laden, the leader of the Al-Qaeda terrorist organization, may have organized Massoud's killing. On Friday, for the first time, a member of the Taliban was quoted as saying he had knowledge of bin Laden's direct involvement in the assassination.

A story by the Associated Press's Islamabad bureau chief, Kathy Gannon, quoted the Taliban's former deputy interior minister, Mullah Muhammad Khaksar, as saying that on the day of Massoud's killing, two Saudis he suspected of being Al-Qaeda members told him of bin Laden's direct role in the murder. They also assured him that Massoud was dead, despite the Northern Alliance's insisting at the time that he had only been gravely injured in the attack.

In the interview with the respected U.S. news agency, Khaksar added that the discussion took place during a mourning ceremony in Kabul for the death of Taliban Interior Minister Abdul Razzak's father.

In an interview yesterday with Radio Free Afghanistan senior correspondent Ahmad Takal, Khaksar confired that he did see two Saudis at the mourning ceremony on 9 September. He denied, however, that they told him anything about bin Laden's order to kill Masood. "No, in this mourning ceremony that took place in the Wazir Akbar Khan mosque [in Kabul], there was no [word] about any act against Mr. Commander Massoud. These are two different things. Some agencies, news [organizations], and radios are quoting me incorrectly. They are spreading their own views by misquoting me, and this is completely incorrect," Khaksar said.

Contacted today, the Associated Press said it had reconfirmed with Khaksar the substance of his comments and that it stands behind its story.

In the AP report, Khaksar was also quoted as saying that he had been told that bin Laden had diverted the two suicide bombers from another terrorist attack planned in Indonesia. He also said no one at the mourning ceremony spoke of the 11 September attacks, which were only two days away.

But in his interview with RFE/RL, Khaksar repeatedly denied having singled out bin Laden as being responsible for Massoud's death. "The martyrdom of the respected Commander Massoud was a terrorist act regardless of who inside or outside of Afghanistan was involved in terrorism. Those terrorists have committed this act. But I have never explicitly pointed to any specific person," Khaksar said.

Washington has said it believes bin Laden had prior information about Massoud's assassination but has not said what level of involvement bin Laden might have had in the plot.

The AP report noted speculation that bin Laden might have killed Massoud to ingratiate himself with Taliban leader Mullah Mohammad Omar to ensure his protection if the U.S. retaliated for the 11 September attacks.

The assassins were traveling on Belgian passports. Four people were arrested months later in London and Paris on charges of involvement in Massoud's assassination, including the charge of providing false documents.

Khaksar claimed to have worked with forces loyal to Massoud and current Afghan President Hamid Karzai before the fall of the Taliban to bring about "an ethnically balanced and stable" Afghanistan. "Under the Taliban and for five years, I was of the opinion that Afghanistan must have a united government representing all ethnic groups and that Afghanistan must be reconstructed and have good relations with all foreign countries. For this, I was in contact with all parties working for Afghanistan, including the United Front [Northern Alliance] under the respected and martyred Commander Massoud and the respected head of the government, Mr. Karzai," Khaksar said.

Khaksar was one of the first high-ranking Taliban officials to defect after the fall of Kabul in November. He was quoted by AP as saying the Taliban leadership was convinced that bin Laden was behind the 11 September attacks.

(Radio Free Afghanistan's Kabul correspondent, Ahmad Takal, contributed to this report.)