Ex-Afghan leader's assassin waited days to see him

September 21, 2011 - 6:45 AM
Afghanistan

FILE - In this Oct.14, 2010, file photo, former Afghan President and chief of a new peace council Burhanuddin Rabbani holds a press conference, in Kabul, Afghanistan. Two Afghan government sources said Tuesday Sept. 20, 2011 that Rabbani has been killed in the capital Kabul. (AP Photo/Dusan Vranic, file)

KABUL, Afghanistan (AP) — The suicide bomber who assassinated former Afghan President Burhanuddin Rabbani insisted on meeting face-to-face with the ex-president and waited in Kabul for days to talk with him about brokering peace with the Taliban, an associate of Rabbani's said Wednesday.

Rabbani — who headed a government council seeking a political settlement with the insurgents — was killed Tuesday evening by a man who had claimed he was a Taliban leader wanting to reconcile with the Afghan government.

The assassination dashed hopes for reconciling with the Taliban and raised fears about deteriorating security in Afghanistan just as foreign combat troops are starting to pull out. Some U.S. and Canadian troops have left in recent months and all foreign combat forces are to go home or move into support roles by the end of 2014 when Afghan forces are to be in charge of protecting and defending the nation.

Mohammad Ismail Qasemyar, the international relations adviser for the peace council, said the bomber, identified as Esmatullah, had approached several council officials, telling them that he was an important figure in the Taliban insurgency and would only speak directly with Rabbani.

"He wanted to talk about peace with Professor Rabbani," Qasemyar said.

The appeal was passed up to President Hamid Karzai, who called Rabbani and encouraged him to meet with Esmatullah, said Ahmad Wali Masood, the brother of Ahmed Shah Masood, the resistance leader who was killed by al-Qaida in 2001.

The bomber stayed at a house used for guests of the peace council while waiting for Rabbani to return from a trip to Iran, Qasemyar said.

On Tuesday, the two met and the attacker went to shake hands with Rabbani at his home, bowing his head near the former president's chest and detonating a bomb hidden in his turban, Qasemyar said.

The U.S.-led coalition said another attacker was also involved, but that could not be confirmed by Afghan officials. A Western official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because the killing is still being investigated, said one person has been detained in connection with Rabbani's death.

The street where Rabbani lived was under tight security Wednesday and those gathered outside feared another suicide attack because so many dignitaries were there paying their respects.

A black cloth, a symbol of mourning, was draped over a wall. Throughout the day, top clerics, tribal leaders, government officials, former jihadi commanders and members of Rabbani's party streamed in and out of the house as a loudspeaker broadcast readings of the Quran, the Muslim holy book.

The dignitaries included Vice President Gen. Mohammed Qasim Fahim; Abdullah Abdullah, a top opposition leader who ran against Karzai in the last election; Ismail Khan, a former warlord and current minister of water and power; and Atta Mohammed Noor, a powerful governor of Balkh province in the north. Local citizens denounced the Taliban, saying it was shameful for insurgents to kill an old man working for peace.

Neyamatullah Shahrani, a religious adviser to Karzai, said it will be difficult to replace Rabbani.

"Nobody can replace Rabbani. He belonged to all Afghans. He was serving all the Afghan people. It's too early to say how it will affect the peace efforts, but it is very difficult to replace Rabbani. He had relations with all these tribes in Afghanistan."

The Pakistani government and leaders across the world condemned the killing. U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon called Afghan President Hamid Karzai as he rushed back to Kabul from the United States.

No one has claimed responsibility for the attack, but Gen. Mohammad Ayub Salangi, police chief in Kabul, said the Taliban were behind it.

When contacted by The Associated Press, Taliban spokesmen declined to discuss the killing.

In Washington, John Kerry, the chairman of the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee, called Rabbani's assassination a "great setback" for the cause of peace and reconciliation in Afghanistan.

"Former President Rabbani was a historic figure who fought the Taliban in the 1990s and who continued to work for peace and stability as the head of the High Peace Council," Kerry said in a statement. "Afghanistan's enemies want to use his death along with other previous attacks to destabilize the region. We cannot let that happen. Too much is at stake for the people of Afghanistan and the country's future."

The Secretary General of the Jiddah-based Organization of the Islamic Cooperation, Ekmeleddin Ihsanoglu, also condemned the killing.

"This ugly and cowardly terrorist act runs counter to the noble values and the teachings of Islam," he said in a statement. He appealed to all Afghans to shun violence, saying "dialogue remains the only option to resolve the conflict in Afghanistan."

Afghans at Rabbani's home blamed the Haqqani network, a militant organization based in Pakistan and affiliated with the Taliban and al-Qaida that has conducted several attacks in the capital.

And some criticized the government for failing to provide security while standing just steps away from its top officials.

"They are continuing to kill our leaders," said Rashuddin, who was a close associate of Rabbani. "How can the bombers get into Kabul? How can they get into the house close to Rabbani? There should be tight security. The Americans are saying they are for peace and security while our leaders are dying in front of our eyes."

Rabbani, whose death came just days after insurgents attacked the U.S. Embassy in Kabul, was the latest high-ranking official close to Karzai to be killed by militants in recent months. Outnumbered on the battlefield, insurgents are conducting targeted attacks against officials aligned with the Afghan government and U.S.-led coalition, lowering hopes that Afghan forces can secure the country.

"Every day they are killing," said Mirza Mohammad, a 50-year-old former Afghan Army officer from Parwan province. "The killing of Rabbani has brought chaos to Afghanistan."

Mohammad, who was among those paying respects Wednesday at Rabbani's home in Kabul, called for a national uprising. "We will soon get revenge," he said. "Pakistan is behind this attack."

Meanwhile, in the Waghaz district of eastern Ghazni province, nine Afghan policemen were killed Tuesday evening while they were trying to defuse a roadside bomb, said Gen. Zirawer Zahid, provincial police chief.

And in the south, two NATO service members were killed in an insurgent attack, the alliance said in a statement Wednesday. NATO did not provide further details.

Including the latest deaths, at least 28 international troops have been killed so far this month in Afghanistan.

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Associated Press writers Amir Shah and Deb Riechmann contributed to this report from Kabul.