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Afghanistan: Kabul City Life Returning To Normal 10 Days After Bomb Attack

Life in the Afghan capital Kabul is returning to normal following a deadly car-bomb attack this month that killed 30 people and shattered illusions that the city was secure from violence. Shops and streets were crowded over the weekend, after being relatively quiet for more than a week. RFE/RL reports from Kabul that while no one is ruling out the possibility of further attacks, the relatively peaceful interlude has given residents cause for optimism.

Kabul, 16 September 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Life is slowly returning to normal for residents of the Afghan capital Kabul following a car-bomb attack on 5 September that killed around 30 people and wounded more than 100 others.

Over the weekend, Kabul residents returned to the streets in near-normal numbers. The city's shops and bazaars were crowded. The streets were filled with cars and bikes.

The bombing was the bloodiest act of violence in Kabul since the defeat of the Taliban at the end of last year. No group has claimed responsibility, though officials have blamed Taliban remnants, Al-Qaeda, or fighters connected to rogue commander Gulbuddin Hekmatyar.

Since the bomb blast, there have been no subsequent attacks, although state television yesterday reported that police had seized some explosives hidden in a fuel truck. There were few details, but the television report said several men were arrested.

While no one can rule out another bomb blast, the relatively peaceful interlude has given residents hope the 5 September attack will not be repeated.

Naurooz, a shopkeeper in his late 20s, was standing just 9 meters from the place where the car bomb exploded. That car bomb was the second of two explosions at the same location that afternoon. The first explosion was smaller and designed to draw onlookers to the scene in order to increase the number of victims. Naurooz was knocked unconscious by the second blast. But this weekend, he was back to work, sitting in front of his electronics shop beside a mound of rubble and broken glass.

"It was Thursday at 10 minutes to 3 [in the afternoon] that the first [smaller] explosion occurred 3 meters from where I was standing. The police were trying to disperse the people. I had a stick in my hand not to let the people come onto the scene. After that, another explosion took place and I don't know what happened then. When I regained consciousness I realized that some of my friends were injured and I went to bring some bandages for them," Naurooz said.

He said he feels relatively secure and that he's not afraid of another attack. "To my mind, the security is okay. But it is the responsibility of police as to whether there is another bomb blast or not. I can't really say anything about it. It is the responsibility of the police," Naurooz said.

In the aftermath of the bomb blast, police have imposed tight security measures. Parking is prohibited in many parts of the city, and cars are regularly stopped at intersections for inspections.

Many of these security measures remain in place, but city residents are becoming accustomed to the restrictions and many residents have resumed their normal routines.

Turkish General Hilmi Akin Zorlu, the commander of the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in Afghanistan, said Kabul residents have no specific reason to feel afraid. ISAF forces are responsible for maintaining security in the capital and immediate surrounding area.

In an interview on 13 September with RFE/RL, he said, "[The] overall security position within the area of responsibility of ISAF continues to be stable and secure."

The situation outside the capital, and beyond ISAF's control, is far different. Factional fighting, particularly in the north and south of the country, continues to put the lives of civilians at risk. There are increasing calls for ISAF to expand its area of control or for the central government to give its citizens better protection.

Zorlu declined to say whether ISAF should extend its mandate outside of Kabul. "[The issue of expanding ISAF's mission beyond Kabul] is a matter for the international community. I mean [it's a matter for] national governments and the UN Security Council, [and not for me personally to decide]," Zorlu said.

Zorlu won't speculate on who might be behind the Kabul car bombing, saying only that it was "clearly a terrorist outrage." He said ISAF has adopted unspecified additional measures to keep the city safe. "We will continue to increase our intelligence capability, intelligence efforts, for preventing these kind of attacks from [occurring]. We have also some additional measures, but I think it is not proper to disclose them publicly," Zorlu said.

Theories abound in Kabul about who might have planted the car bomb, although no one can offer any proof.

The leading theory among survivors of the car bomb in Kabul's central market is that it was Hekmatyar, with assistance from elements in Pakistan.

Hekmatyar, a former Afghan prime minister and leader of the hardline Hizb-i Islami faction, has denied responsibility for the bomb. In a recorded message reported last week by the Islamabad-based Afghan Islamic Press, he said he regretted the deaths. But he also called on Afghans to wage a holy war against what he labeled "U.S.-led aggressor forces" in Afghanistan.

Hekmatyar is a highly controversial figure who waged a ruthless battle for control of Kabul in the early 1990s that left thousands of Afghans dead. He is strongly opposed to President Hamid Karzai's Transitional Authority. His whereabouts are unknown, but he is believed to be living in Pakistan or southern Afghanistan.

Thirty-year-old Abdul Ghani was selling postcards from his street stand when the bomb exploded about 20 meters away. He said he's outraged by the attack and calls on the perpetrators to identify themselves. "[I call on the bombers] to declare openly who they are against. If it is Pakistan or another country [that is behind the bomb], they must declare it and say 'I want to fight with you.' If it is Gulbuddin [Hekmatyar] or someone else, he has to say 'I want to fight with you.' The [Afghan] people must know who is against them," Ghani said.

He chided the bombers and said if the bomb blast is really part of a "holy war," then who is the enemy? He pointed out the bomb attack didn't kill foreigners, just Afghans.

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    Mark Baker

    Mark Baker is a freelance journalist and travel writer based in Prague. He has written guidebooks and articles for Lonely Planet, Frommer’s, and Fodor’s, and his articles have also appeared in National Geographic Traveler and The Wall Street Journal, among other publications.