- The Washington Times - Sunday, April 27, 2008

KABUL, Afghanistan (AP) — Suspected Taliban militants attacked a ceremony attended by the Afghan president today, unleashing automatic weapons fire that sent foreign dignitaries and senior members of the government fleeing for cover.

Three people, including a lawmaker, were killed and eight were wounded.

President Hamid Karzai, who escaped unharmed, later appeared on television saying several suspects in the attack had been arrested.

Karzai said that “the enemy of Afghanistan” tried to disrupt the ceremony but were thwarted by security forces.

A statement from the presidential palace said Karzai, all Cabinet members and diplomats were safe. Along with lawmaker Fazel Rahman Samkanai, a local Shi’ite leader and a 10-year-old boy also died in the attack, officials said.

About 100 people were rounded up for questioning, an Afghan intelligence official said. He spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to media. The government has yet to identify any suspects.

The gunfire apparently came from a three-story guesthouse, popular with migrant laborers, about 300 yards from the stands where Karzai was seated alongside Cabinet ministers and senior diplomats, who all escaped unharmed. A U.S. Embassy official confirmed U.S. Ambassador William Wood was also not hurt.

A Taliban spokesman claimed responsibility for the attack, saying it had deployed four militants with suicide vests and guns to target the president. There was no report of a suicide attack.

Hundreds of people fled in chaos as shots rang out, just as the national anthem ended at a ceremony to mark the 16th anniversary of Afghanistan’s victory over the Soviet invasion.

The gunfire appeared to come from ruined houses about few hundred yards from where the VIPs were seated. Security forces deployed elsewhere opened fire at the houses.

Karzai was escorted from scene, surrounded by bodyguards, in one of four black Landcruisers. A U.S. embassy official said U.S. Ambassador William Wood also escaped unharmed.

“President Karzai condemns this act and asks for all the people to remain calm,” a statement from the presidential palace said.

Karzai, who has led Afghanistan since soon after a U.S.-led invasion ousted the Taliban regime in 2001, has been targeted by assassins before and is constantly shadowed by a phalanx of bodyguards.

The attack came despite unprecedented tight security for today’s celebrations.

For days Kabul has been ringed by checkpoints with security forces and plainclothes intelligence officials searching vehicles. The area where the ceremonies took place had been blocked off by troops, tanks and armored personnel carriers.

The live TV coverage of the assassination attempt will add to the sense of insecurity in the Afghan capital, which has been spared the worst of the violence as fighting has escalated between Taliban insurgents and NATO and U.S.-led forces — leaving thousands dead last year.

It was the first militant attack in the city since mid-March.

In TV footage, two lawmakers who were sitting about 30 yards from Karzai appeared to be hit by the gunfire. One of the men slumped back in his seat, while the other lay on the ground.

People at the ceremony ducked for cover then fled — among them Afghan police and soldiers who were assembled for the pageantry. Karzai had just completed a drive-past in a U.S.-supplied Humvee jeep.

Taliban spokesman Zabiullah Mujaheed said insurgents carrying AK-47s and rocket-propelled grenades perpetrated the attack. He said BM-12 missiles — a crude rocket launched from a small platform — were used in the attack. He spoke to an AP reporter by phone from an undisclosed location.

Mohammad Saleh Saljoqi, a lawmaker at the ceremony, said two rockets — which he described as rocket-propelled grenades — landed near the dignitaries.

One rocket hit inside the Eid Gah mosque opposite where Karzai was sitting. The second hit when the president had already left, landing about 50 yards away, Saljoqi said.

Sirajudin, a police officer at the scene, said he saw two people firing AK47 assault rifles from a house toward the area where Karzai and other dignitaries were sitting.

Karzai has escaped at least three other attempts on his life since he took power in Afghanistan after the fall of the Taliban regime six years ago:

On June 10, 2007, Taliban militants fired six rockets that landed near a school yard where Karzai was meeting with local leaders and residents in Andar district, Ghazni province. No one was hurt. Karzai continued his speech despite the attack before returning to Kabul.

On Sept. 17, 2004, militants fired rockets at an American helicopter taking Karzai to the eastern city of Gardez, in Paktia province, missing the chopper as it approached a landing zone. No one was hurt.

On Sept. 9, 2002, a former Taliban fighter dressed in an Afghan army uniform fired toward Karzai as he traveled in a motorcade in the city of Kandahar. Karzai was unharmed, but Kandahar Gov. Gul Agha Sherzai was wounded. The attacker was killed by Karzai’s American bodyguards. Two other people who tried to disarm the attacker are also killed.

Associated Press writers Rahim Faiez, Fisnik Abrashi and Alisa Tang in Kabul and Noor Khan in Kandahar contributed to this report.

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