Prague, 6 September 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Afghanistan's Transitional Authority President Hamid Karzai today returned to Kabul after surviving an assassination attempt in the southern city of Kandahar.
The Afghan leader reached the capital at dawn aboard a U.S. military aircraft and immediately proceeded to his office. A presidential spokesman, Fazel Akbar, said Karzai would go ahead with a planned meeting with visiting Russian Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov.
Hours before yesterday's assassination attempt on Karzai, a powerful car bomb ripped through a busy Kabul shopping street, leaving at least 26 dead and 150 injured.
The blast in a taxi was preceded by a smaller blast -- apparently from an exploding device mounted on a bicycle -- which police suggest was designed to draw people into the street and inflict a greater number of casualties.
The command of the 5,000-strong International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) today announced tightened security measures in the Afghan capital in a bid to avoid further attacks.
ISAF armored vehicles were posted on Kabul's main intersections and foreign troops proceeded to search passing cars. Afghan police and soldiers today erected roadblocks across the city.
ISAF spokesman Simon Ryan expressed concern at what he described as a "new development in terrorist activities" and said the Turkish-led force would implement new procedures in a bid to reduce the risk of similar attacks in the future: "It is important to recognize that, without closing or disrupting the everyday lives of the citizens of the city of Kabul, it is not possible to prevent every terrorist attack. We have, however, a series of procedures to implement to reduce the likelihood of this type of attack of occurring again."
Afghan Foreign Ministry spokesman Omar Samad said both the Kabul blast and the assassination attempt on Karzai were aimed at destabilizing Afghanistan's fragile government and preventing restoration of peace in the war-torn country: "It is tragic because, obviously, [these attacks] took the lives of many [Afghan] people, including some members of the security forces of Afghanistan. And [those are] very cowardly acts, actually, that [are] targeting peace and stability in this country."
No one has claimed responsibility for either incident, which occurred just days before the first anniversary of the 9 September assassination of anti-Taliban military leader Ahmad Shah Massoud and the 11 September terrorist attacks on the United States.
The owner of the taxi that exploded in Kabul and another suspect have been arrested and questioned by security forces. But the Interior Ministry says it has no evidence yet that the two men are connected to the attack.
The gunman who reportedly attempted to kill Karzai has been identified as being from southern Helmand Province, a former Taliban stronghold where resentment has been growing against the U.S. presence in Afghanistan.
Police believe the would-be assassin had recently left the Afghan national army that is being formed in Kabul under U.S. and French supervision. Kandahar authorities today said he joined the security forces of the local governor just days ago.
The attack took place while Karzai's motorcade was reaching the gates of Kandahar Governor Gul Agha Sherzai's residence.
The lone assailant reportedly fired four shots through Karzai's open car window, missing his target by centimeters. Sherzai, who was sitting beside the Afghan leader, suffered minor injuries in the neck.
The gunman was shot dead by U.S. special forces looking after Karzai's security, and his body is now in custody of American forces. One of Karzai's Afghan bodyguards was killed in the shootout, and another was seriously wounded.
A spokesman for Sherzai told AFP that Sayed Rasoul, a security chief at Sherzai's former headquarters, and 17 of his men have been arrested in connection with the assassination attempt.
Karzai himself attempted to downplay the incident, describing his assailant as "just a terrorist, not much." Talking to a BBC correspondent minutes after the attack, a smiling Karzai said he was "safe and sound."
"I expect things like that to come across the way," he said. "I've been threatened before."
Speaking in Kabul today, Afghanistan's Foreign Minister Abdullah Abdullah said the administration was anticipating such attacks ahead of this month's anniversaries. He said the Afghan government and its allies should focus on combating terrorism as well as on preserving security throughout the country, not only in Kabul.
The Kandahar incident and the Kabul bombing further underscore the vulnerability of the Afghan leader, whose rule hardly extends beyond the ISAF-controlled capital.
Since Karzai took over from the toppled Taliban militia in December with the backing of the U.S. and its Western allies, he has been confronted with ethnic infighting within his coalition. This internecine feud has led to a series of armed clashes in Afghanistan's northern and southeastern provinces.
Yesterday's assassination attempt came some two months after unknown assailants shot down Vice President Haji Abdul Qadir in Kabul. Earlier this year, Vice President and Defense Minister Mohammad Qassem Fahim narrowly escaped a bomb attack in the eastern city of Jalalabad.
Security officials suggest remnants of the former ruling Taliban militia and their Al-Qaeda allies are behind yesterday's attacks. But they have so far provided no evidence to sustain their claims.
One potential suspect being named is former Prime Minister Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, who, in an audiotape message sent to Pakistan the day before the attacks, 4 September, called for a "jihad," or holy struggle, against Karzai's administration and the international "occupation forces."
Turkish General Hilmi Akin Zorlu, who currently serves as ISAF commander, recently blamed Hekmatyar's Hizb-i-Islami Party for trying to destabilize Afghanistan in collusion with Al-Qaeda militants and remnants of the Taliban militia.
Hekmatyar, who is believed to be hiding in eastern Afghanistan, has denied any links with Al-Qaeda. But in April the Afghan government arrested dozens of Kabul-based Hizb-i-Islami members on suspicion of plotting against Karzai.