Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Afghan peace council head killed in Kabul

(Reuters) - A Taliban suicide bomber on Tuesday killed former Afghan President Burhanuddin Rabbani and head of a council tasked with trying to negotiate a political end to the war, in what analysts called a blow to peace efforts.

The killing underscored doubts over the ability of fledgling Afghan security forces to protect even the most prominent politicians as U.S.-led forces ready to pull out by 2014.

"A Taliban member who went to Rabbani's house (in the heavily guarded diplomatic enclave) for peace talks detonated a bomb hidden in his turban," a statement by the Kabul police chief's office said.

President Barack Obama called the killing of Rabbani, head of Afghanistan's High Peace Council, a tragic loss but said work needed to continue to bring elements of Afghan society together to end the years of violence.

A police source said Masoom Stanekzai, a senior adviser to President Hamid Karzai, was badly injured in the attack.

It was the highest profile assassination in Afghanistan since the younger half-brother of President Hamid Karzai, Ahmad Wali Karzai, was killed at his home in July by a highly trusted family security guard.

It also came just a week after a deadly 20-hour siege by militants in the fortified capital, which illustrated the strength of the Taliban after nearly a decade of war.

"The killing of Rabbani is a serious blow against President Karzai and the government's peace and reconciliations efforts. It also underscores the inability of the government to protect even the most prominent Afghan politicians," one diplomat said.

Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid claimed responsibility, saying that the killer had gone to Rabbani's home for talks.

"As soon as Rabbani came three steps forward to hug Mohammad Masoom, he triggered his explosive-filled jacket killing Rabbani, (another) Taliban militant Wahid Yar and four security guards present at the house," he told Reuters.

Commander of the International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan, General John R. Allen, called the killing "another outrageous indicator that, regardless of what Taliban leadership outside the country say, they do not want peace, but rather war."


President Karzai, at the start of talks with Obama on the sidelines of the U.N. General Assembly, said Rabbani's death "will not deter us" from continuing the quest for peace.

Karzai, meeting Obama for the first time since the U.S. president announced a troop drawdown plan earlier this year, planned to cut short his New York visit to return home.

"It is a tragic loss," Obama said with Karzai at his side. "We both believe that despite this incident, we will not be deterred from creating a path whereby Afghans can live in freedom, safety and security and prosperity."

"It is going to be important to continue the efforts to bring all of the elements in Afghanistan society together to end the senseless cycle of violence," he said.

Rabbani, a former leader of a powerful mujahideen party during the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan in the 1980s, was chosen last October by Karzai to head the High Peace Council.

His plan included offering amnesty and jobs to Taliban foot soldiers and asylum in third countries to leaders.

The assassination comes after a series of suicide bombings and other major attacks believed to be the work of the Haqqani network, a Taliban-allied insurgent faction based along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border.

One analyst said the peace council had not been seen as effective and that Rabbani himself was viewed by many as an impediment to a deal because he was so loathed by the Taliban.

"But, his assassination might mean that the networks Rabbani led or influenced within Afghanistan .... may resist a deal with the Taliban even more," said Caroline Wadhams, a security expert at the Center for American Progress in Washington.

"It could make it that much more difficult to get greater buy-in from key Afghan leaders, who have been deeply skeptical of talks with the Taliban for some time."

Vali Nasr, a former senior official in the State Department's Afghanistan/Pakistan office, said: "The Taliban wants to send a very powerful message that the Karzai government is not in charge."

"That is important because people begin to waver and shift their allegiances ... And it makes it very difficult to say the Taliban is serious about negotiations if they keep killing people they should be negotiating with," Nasr said.

Rabbani served as president in the 1990s when mujahideen factions waged war for control of the country after the Soviet withdrawal.

As a leading figure among Tajiks, the second largest ethnic group in Afghanistan, there were also concerns his death could worsen ethnic tensions.

The assassination comes a week after a 20-hour gun and grenade attack on Kabul's diplomatic enclave by insurgents, and three suicide bomb attacks on other parts of the city -- together the longest-lasting and most wide-ranging assault on the city.

Last week's siege was the third major attack on the Afghan capital since June.

All three of those attacks are believed to be the work of the Haqqani network, a Taliban-allied insurgent faction, based along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border.

(Additional reporting by Emma Graham-Harrison in Kabul, Laura MacInnis in New York, and Missy Ryan in Washington, Writing by Jonathan Thatcher; Editing by Sugita Katyal)

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