- The Washington Times - Saturday, February 16, 2002

KABUL, Afghanistan Interim leader Hamid Karzai yesterday accused six senior government officials in the killing of the country's aviation minister and said they were motivated by a long-standing feud. Three were arrested, and the others were being sought in Saudi Arabia.

The officials include generals and members of the intelligence service and the Justice Ministry, said Raheen Makhdoom, Mr. Karzai's information minister.

The aviation and tourism minister, Abdul Rahman, was killed Thursday in what appeared to be a mob attack on his plane at Kabul's airport by pilgrims angry over delays in their travel to Saudi Arabia for the annual hajj, or the Islamic pilgrimage to Mecca. Witnesses and officials said the pilgrims beat the minister to death and tossed his body on the tarmac.

The brutal slaying had raised fears over the ability of Mr. Karzai's government to keep public order in post-Taliban Afghanistan. But Mr. Karzai's comments suggested a darker problem: that the factional divisions his government has vowed to end were turning bloody within his own administration.

The capital, Kabul, saw further disorder yesterday when a melee broke out at the main soccer stadium, marring a goodwill game between peacekeepers and an Afghan team. Afghan police beat back an unruly overflow crowd outside the stadium with clubs and rifle butts. Fifty Afghans and five peacekeepers were injured, none seriously.

Mr. Karzai said yesterday that the mob killing on Thursday had "nothing to do with" the pilgrims.

"He was killed by people who planned it," Mr. Karzai told reporters at a hastily called news conference. "We are asking the Saudis to arrest them and bring them back. … We will try them. We will put them behind bars."

It was not clear whether he was suggesting that the officials incited the mob and whether the pilgrims gave cover to a deliberate attack. Mr. Rahman was going to the Indian capital, New Delhi, with a delegation on government business.

In Washington, a senior State Department official said the airport riot was spontaneous but that the men responsible for the killing may have had political motives.

Mr. Makhdoom said three of the suspects were believed to have left on flights for Saudi Arabia with pilgrims traveling there. These were Gen. Abdullah Jan Tawhidi, the deputy intelligence chief; Gen. Kalandar Beg, deputy of the technical office of the Defense Ministry; and an official of the Justice Ministry for whom only one name was given, Halim.

Three are under arrest in connection with the case; one was identified only as Abdul Rehim.

Mr. Karzai suggested that the killing was linked to a blood feud dating to the struggle against the Taliban militia during their 1996-2001 rule. Five of the suspects were part of a Northern Alliance faction of former President Burhanuddin Rabbani and slain opposition leader Ahmed Shah Masood.

Mr. Rahman had been a member of the faction, but at some time during the Taliban years he switched his alliance to a group loyal to the exiled king, Mohammed Zahir Shah.

The Northern Alliance led the fight against the Taliban and now makes up a large part of the interim government, though Mr. Karzai himself is not a member.

Mr. Rahman's slaying sent Mr. Karzai's Cabinet into an emergency session overnight. The Kabul airport was sealed off yesterday, and Interior Ministry police were stationed along the roads leading to the main entrance.

"We lost a good man, an educated man," said a top aide to Mr. Rahman, Mohammed Yakoub Nuristani. "He wanted to help rebuild Afghanistan."

Mr. Rahman, 49, was trained as a medical doctor. He fled Afghanistan when the Taliban took over and had been living in exile in New Delhi.

Airport officials and witnesses said the number of pilgrims stranded at Kabul airport had been swelling for days a backup caused by problems in getting Saudi visas, a lack of flights and delays in issuing tickets. By Thursday, thousands reportedly were waiting at the freezing-cold airport and growing increasingly angry.

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