- The Washington Times - Saturday, September 10, 2005

KABUL, Afghanistan — Afghan soldiers botched their brazen attempt to assassinate the defense minister at the capital’s airport yesterday, while fighting in southern Afghanistan left 30 suspected militants dead, officials said.

Later, a helicopter carrying Afghanistan’s army chief, Gen. Bismillah Khan, and three Cabinet ministers crashed and burst into flames while taking off in the Panjshir Valley, about 60 miles north of Kabul. All on board escaped with only minor injuries. Presidential spokesman Khaleeq Ahmed blamed the crash on the copter’s rotor blades clipping a tree during takeoff.

The officials had attended a memorial service in honor of Ahmed Shah Masood, the former head of the U.S.-backed Northern Alliance, who was killed by two suspected al Qaeda assassins Sept. 9, 2001.

Nine Afghan soldiers were arrested in the attempt to shoot Defense Minister Rahim Wardak at the airport, ministry spokesman Gen. Mohammed Saher Azimi said.

Four bullets hit his convoy as the vehicles left the airport, but Mr. Wardak and several other ministers had gotten out, he said. One bullet hit “the exact place where the defense minister had been sitting in the car,” and a ministry staffer was wounded, Gen. Azimi said.

“It is clear that it was an assassination attempt on the defense minister,” he said.

The motive for the shooting was not announced. A senior government official, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said the soldiers were angry over a pay dispute.

The violence came as U.S. military commanders warned that Taliban insurgents might try to disrupt the Sept. 18 legislative elections with “spectacular” assaults using car bombs and suicide attackers.

Coming after last fall’s presidential ballot, the Sept. 18 election is the next key step toward democracy after a quarter-century of war.

Chief Warrant Officer Larry Tersone said insurgents were expected to “start ramping up operations” even more. He said the main threat was believed to be car bombs and suicide attacks at polling stations.

“I think they will try to conduct an operation of a spectacular nature within a significant population center, because that is the immediate attention-getter they are looking for,” he said.

But Maj. Gen. Jason Kamiya, the top operational commander in Afghanistan, said he was confident that enough American troops and other forces were in place to ensure the balloting succeeds.

About 20,000 American soldiers are in Afghanistan as part of a 21,000-strong U.S.-led coalition. There is a separate force of 11,000 NATO-commanded peacekeepers.

Coalition forces have gone on the offensive in recent weeks, reporting the killings or arrests of hundreds of suspected insurgents during operations in volatile southern and eastern regions.

Gen. Azimi said Afghan and U.S.-led forces killed 30 suspected militants and arrested a large number of others Friday in southern Helmand province, which has suffered several insurgent attacks in recent weeks. Dozens of weapons were found in the area, including some lying in farm fields, he said.


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