- The Washington Times - Thursday, December 4, 2003

From combined dispatches

KABUL, Afghanistan — A rocket exploded in a field near the U.S. Embassy in Kabul yesterday just hours after Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld dismissed suggestions that Taliban rebels would disrupt elections in Afghanistan slated for next summer.

U.S. military officials said Mr. Rumsfeld had left the country to continue his tour of Central Asia when the blast occurred.

“It was outside the east side of the compound, in the direction of the U.S. Embassy,” U.S. Maj. Kevin Arata, a spokesman for the International Security Assistance Force, said of the explosion.

No one was injured in the attack, which one official blamed on the ousted Taliban rulers or their ally, renegade warlord Gulbuddin Hekmatyar.

After talks with President Hamid Karzai in the capital, Kabul, Mr. Rumsfeld said stepped-up Taliban attacks in the south and the east would not delay the June vote.

“I can’t imagine that there will be any type of delay from the standpoint of what you suggested in the south,” he said at a news conference at the end of his one-day trip.

“While there always may be incidents from time to time, the capabilities that exist and the role that can be played by both Afghan forces as well as coalition forces ought to be able to manage anything like that quite well,” he said.

But the blast underlined the country’s fragile security situation ahead of a key Afghan gathering, or loya jirga, next week to approve a constitution and the national elections, the first since U.S.-led forces drove the Taliban from power in late 2001.

In southwest Afghanistan, Taliban fighters ambushed a convoy of 60 government workers preparing for the country’s first census since 1979. One census worker was killed and 11 were wounded, officials said.

Mr. Karzai said Afghanistan was on a “path to freedom” that the former ruling Islamist hard-liners could not block.

“The Taliban, terrorists, whoever they are, will not be able to disrupt the process,” he said.

Aid groups and the United Nations have expressed grave doubts that the existing level of security will be sufficient to ensure that Afghanistan’s first-ever free elections run smoothly.

Mr. Rumsfeld met with Mr. Karzai at the Presidential Palace in Kabul, about two miles from the U.S. Embassy.

About two hours later, the rocket exploded in a military athletic field across the street from the embassy, nearly 300 yards from the building, witnesses said.

Police and soldiers searching the field found a piece of shrapnel that appeared to have come from a truck-launched rocket, Kabul military commander Mohammed Ayub Salangi said.

Matyullah Ramani, a senior Kabul police officer, said the attack was the work of either the Taliban or Mr. Hekmatyar. “They are trying to disrupt the loya jirga,” Mr. Ramani said.

While international troops support Mr. Karzai in the capital, Afghanistan’s government has little control outside Kabul because of attacks by pro-Taliban insurgents and fighting among powerful provincial warlords.

Before traveling to Kabul yesterday afternoon, Mr. Rumsfeld met in northern Afghanistan with two main warlords in the region and said he was satisfied that they had begun disarming, even though the pace was slower that he had hoped.

More than 400 people have been killed in clashes since August, the bloodiest period since the Taliban’s fall.


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