- The Washington Times - Monday, April 28, 2008

KABUL, Afghanistan (AP) — Militants firing rockets and automatic rifles yesterday attacked the Afghan president at a ceremony in Kabul, missing their target but killing three people and wounding eight others.

The Taliban took responsibility for the assault that sent President Hamid Karzai and foreign ambassadors scurrying for cover, underscoring the fragile grip of his U.S.-backed government.

The attackers opened fire as a 21-gun salute echoed over the capital at an anniversary ceremony to mark the mujahedeen victory over the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan.

Hundreds of people, including soldiers and police officers who had formed an honor guard inspected by Mr. Karzai minutes earlier, fled in chaos as shots rang out. The president was hustled away, surrounded by bodyguards, and left in a convoy of four black sport utility vehicles.

Video: More violence expected in Afghanistan

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

A lawmaker who was about 30 yards from the president was killed in the attack.

Residents reported that a 30-minute gunbattle broke out between security forces and gunmen holed up in the guesthouse in a neighborhood of ruined mud-brick buildings.

Defense Minister Gen. Abdul Rahim Wardak said three attackers were killed by security forces, and assault rifles and machine guns were confiscated.

Taliban spokesman Zabiullah Mujaheed said by telephone from an undisclosed location that six militants were deployed to target the president, and three of them died in the attack. He said they were armed with guns, rockets and suicide vests, although no suicide bombings were reported.

The initial moments of the attack, which came as a marching band played the finale of the national anthem, were broadcast live until TV transmissions were cut. Hundreds of dignitaries could be seen diving for cover. Two lawmakers were hit by the gunfire. One of the men slumped back in his seat, while the other lay on the ground.

Less than two hours later, Mr. Karzai appeared on state-run TV and said: “Everything is OK.”

Appearing calm, Mr. Karzai said that “the enemy of Afghanistan” tried to disrupt the ceremony but was thwarted by security forces. He said several suspects were arrested, and he smiled as he signed off his brief recorded statement.

The live coverage of the assassination attempt will likely 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.

NATO Secretary-General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer joined several foreign leaders, including some from neighboring Pakistan, in condemning yesterday’s attack.

“The Taliban has demonstrated once again that they will use the most extreme violence to oppose Afghanistan’s freedom and democratic development,” Mr. de Hoop Scheffer said.

The president’s office said Nasir Ahmad Latefi, a local Shi’ite leader, and a 10-year boy died in the attack. Lawmaker Fazel Rahman Samkanai died of his injuries at a hospital, said Defense Ministry spokesman Gen. Mohammad Zahir Azimi.

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