A mob of Muslim pilgrims enraged over flight delays to the Islamic holy city of Mecca stormed a plane at Kabul Airport and beat Afghani-stan's aviation minister to death, tossing his body on to the tarmac, officials and eyewitnesses said.
The violent outbreak underscored fears about the interim government's ability to establish security in chaotic post-Taliban Afghanistan -- and raised questions about the role of international peacekeepers, who were present on the airport grounds at the time of the mob attack.
Afghanistan's Cabinet met in emergency session for several hours late Thursday following the killing of the aviation and tourism minister, Abdul Rahman. The Kabul Airport was sealed off yesterday morning and white-helmeted Interior Ministry police were stationed every few yards on the roads leading to the main entrance.
Later yesterday, a wild melee broke out at Kabul's main soccer stadium at the start of what had been billed as a goodwill game between peacekeepers and an Afghan team. The stadium was filled to capacity with 30,000 spectators.
An overflow crowd began fighting their way through the gates, and guards beat back the crowd with clubs and rifle butts and fired smoke bombs. Peacekeepers fired warning shots in the air.
Play began despite the clash and ended in a 3-1 win for the peacekeepers.
"We lost a good man, an educated man," said a top aide to Rahman, Mohammed Yakoub Nuristani. "He wanted to help rebuild Afghanistan."
The Foreign Ministry indicated it would search for those responsible for Rahman's death.
"The interim administration is shocked, obviously, and very saddened by this incident," said Foreign Ministry spokesman Omar Samad. "We're looking into the criminal actions that have taken place here."
The fatal confrontation was sparked after Rahman went to Kabul airport Thursday afternoon for a flight to New Delhi, according to accounts from government and Afghan airline officials. Hundreds of pilgrims, who'd been stranded at the airport since early morning awaiting Saudi visas and transport to Mecca, blocked Rahman's plane, airline and government officials said.
The mob stormed the plane when Rahman emerged to try to talk to the crowd, said Abdul Wahab Nuristani, the deputy chief of a military division in eastern Afghanistan. Rahman was seized, beaten and his body tossed onto the tarmac below, he said, citing witness accounts.
"This is so terrible, so illegal," he said.
Dozens of friends, family and government officials gathered at Rahman's Kabul home as word spread of his death. The mourners listened quietly as a mullah read verses from the Koran.
Rahman, 49, was trained as a doctor. He fled Afghanistan when the Taliban took over and had been living in exile in New Delhi. In interviews since taking over as aviation and tourism minister in the interim government, he had spoken enthusiastically of his wish to make Afghanistan a tourist destination.
Despite the killing, two pilgrimage flights left the airport at 2am and another was to depart later yesterday, airport officials said, speaking on condition of anonymity.
Several pilgrims were also hurt during a clash with Rahman's bodyguards at the airport Thursday. Also beaten in the fray were about 10 members of the staff of Afghanistan's Ariana Airlines, including its president, said an Ariana employee who spoke on condition of anonymity.
A contingent of British and French peacekeepers, stationed less than 1km away in the military part of the airport, were apparently unaware that the situation had flared out of control. Earlier, they had sent food and blankets for the growing crowd.
The security force "knew there was an ongoing incident, but it happened very quickly," said British Captain Graham Dunlop, a spokesman for the peacekeepers. He said the civilian area of the airport was under the control of Afghan authorities.
Mohammed Anif, a Kabul man who was waiting to see off his father on the pilgrimage, saw the mob rush the plane after a rumor ran through the crowd that it was about to take off.
"They went running up the steps and inside the plane, and we saw struggles and a body thrown out of the plane," he said. He said he could not tell from a distance if it was Rahman's.
Some accounts, though, said Rahman left the plane of his own accord to try to talk to the crowd.
Before the plane was stormed, Anif said he heard people in the crowd talking angrily about the minister using the plane for an official trip while they waited for their own plane to Mecca for the hajj festival.
The numbers of Afghan pilgrims wanting to embark on the pilgrimage had been building up, with the backlog running into the thousands by Thursday.
The hajj to Mecca is one of the pillars of Islam. Muslims who are able-bodied and can afford the journey are obliged to do it at least once in their lifetime.
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