Killing of Afghan leader endangers peace process

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KABUL, Afghanistan (AP) — The suicide bomber who killed the head of an Afghan peace council struggling to start meaningful negotiations with the Taliban delivered a potentially fatal blow to the efforts to find a political settlement in Afghanistan.

Afghan officials on Wednesday mourned the death of former President Berhanuddin Rabbani, who headed the High Peace Council. His assassin had claimed he was a Taliban leader seeking to reconcile with the government and had waited for days in Kabul on the pretext of wanting to talk to Mr. Rabbani about peace.

The assassination sapped hope 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 speak only directly with Mr. Rabbani.

“He wanted to talk about peace with Professor Rabbani,” Mr. Qasemyar said.

The appeal was passed up to President Hamid Karzai, who called Mr. 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 Qaeda in 2001. It’s unclear if Esmatullah was the attacker’s real name.

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

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

The U.S.-led coalition said another attacker also was involved, but that could not be confirmed by Afghan officials. The Interior Ministry said one person had been detained in connection with Mr. Rabbani’s death — the driver of the car that took the bomber to Mr. Rabbani’s house.

Mr. Rabbani was seen as a unifying force who brought together different ethnic factions, many of whom disagreed about whether the government should even be seeking negotiations with the insurgency.

Mr. Rabbani had been a leader of the Northern Alliance resistance movement, and his involvement in the peace council silenced many in that group that didn’t want to sit around a table with Taliban militants.

It was unclear who — if anyone — among Afghan powerbrokers might be able to fill that role now.

Waheed Muzhda, a Kabul-based analyst and former Foreign Ministry official under the Taliban regime that was toppled in late 2001, said it was hard to foresee a future for the year-old peace council.

“It is clear for Afghan people, and even for the international community, that the Taliban do not agree with what the Afghan government is suggesting,” Mr. Muzhda said. “Nobody thinks that any positive development regarding the peace process through the High Peace Council is possible.”

Sarajuddin Sirat, who is active in the council and headed Mr. Rabbani’s political party in northern Baghlan province, said the former president’s death will make it very difficult for peace negotiators to move safely around the country to talk with Taliban figures.

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