Sat, Feb 16, 2002 - Page 1 News List

Afghan pilgrims lynch minister

UNHOLY BEHAVIOR Not far from international peacekeepers at Kabul Airport, Muslims incensed by delays to their flights to Mecca beat the country's aviation minister to death

AP , KABUL, AFGHANISTAN

Hundreds of Afghan Hajj pilgrims wait at Kabul Airport yesterday, a day after an angry crowd of pilgrims killed Abdul Rahman, the air and tourism minister, at the airport.

PHOTO: REUTERS

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.

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