KABUL, Afghanistan – The attempted assassination Sunday of President Hamid Karzai deepened fears that Islamist militants remain able to penetrate the defenses of security forces here despite a boost in international and Afghan troop strength.
Karzai escaped unhurt after gunfire erupted at a public ceremony attended by him and a number dignitaries, including the U.S. ambassador, who also was unharmed. But the brazen attack, mounted from fairly close range, has raised questions about the effectiveness of measures to beef up security in this troubled capital before an expected “spring offensive” by the Taliban insurgency.
Three people were killed in the assault – a member of parliament, a tribal chief and a young boy. Officials said about 10 others were wounded, including a lawmaker.
It was the second high-profile attack in Kabul this year. In a well-orchestrated January assault, militants shot their way past security guards and blast walls at the city’s only five-star hotel, an establishment frequented by Afghan officials and high-powered foreign visitors. Several people were killed.
A spokesman for the Taliban immediately claimed responsibility for Sunday’s attempt on Karzai’s life and said that three of six Taliban fighters were killed in the incident.
Later in the day, a second Islamic group, headed by militant leader Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, also said it had carried out the attack, according to Afghan television.
The gunmen were were able to open fire and launch rockets from a building only a few hundred yards away from where Karzai, the American and British ambassadors, and other VIPs had gathered Sunday morning to observe a commemoration of the victory by Afghan fighters over the Soviet occupation of the country.
Authorities had tightened security in Kabul for several days before the event, posting plainclothes officers throughout the city and setting up vehicle checkpoints. Soldiers in tanks and armored cars were deployed at the parade ground, which sits near the presidential palace.
The national anthem had just ended when a sudden fusillade of automatic gunfire sent hundreds of attendees scurrying for cover. Bodyguards hustled Karzai into a car. A live television broadcast of the event showed a lawmaker slumped in his seat and another sprawled on the ground not far from where the Afghan president had been sitting.
A military officer said that after the shooting, security forces raided a building near the parade ground and that three suspects had been killed and nine others arrested.