Fri, Aug 06, 2004 - Page 5 News List

Afghan minister backs president's rival

OCTOBER ELECTION The defense minister pledged to refrain from violence in the run-up to the vote as he announced he would support the education minister


Afghanistan's powerful defense minister is backing a rival to President Hamid Karzai in the country's coming elections, and has insisted he will not use violence to try to hang on to office, while the US military warned of more attacks leading up to the poll after aid workers were killed in a shooting.

Karzai last week dropped Mohammed Fahim, a militia leader who also serves as deputy head-of-state, from his ticket for the Oct. 9 presidential vote. The surprise move split Karzai's Cabinet and put NATO troops in Kabul on alert for any reaction from Fahim's troops.

In his first public reaction, Fahim said Wednesday the decision was a "mistake" that had alienated many of the militia leaders who helped US forces oust the Taliban in late 2001. But he insisted that the upcoming power struggle would be peaceful.

"The time to pick up a gun and fight is over," Fahim said. "Now is the time for politicians."

Karzai ditched Fahim as his chief running mate after the minister failed to deliver on a pledge to disarm thousands of militia fighters under a UN program to make way for a new American-trained national army and prevent the country lapsing into civil war.

The world body has warned that warlords could use their guns to intimidate voters and candidates in order to consolidate their power -- a concern that helped delay parliamentary elections until the spring.

Karzai opted instead for Ahmad Zia Massood, the brother of a slain resistance hero, saying he believed he was a better option to carry Afghanistan forward.

Fahim said the move prompted him and other veterans of the fight against Soviet occupation in the 1980s to back Education Minister Yunus Qanooni, one of 22 candidates running against the US-backed incumbent.

"I'm supporting Mr. Qanooni along with some other ministers," Fahim said. "Karzai no longer has much support among the mujahidin."

Foreign Minister Abdullah has also backed Qanooni, forming an influential triumvirate of ethnic Tajiks from the north of the country. Ethnic Uzbek strongman Abdul Rashid Dostum and Hazara warlord Mohammed Mohaqeq are also candidates.

The US military forecast more attacks on civilians yesterday -- possibly including a major strike in the capital -- after gunmen fired on a car carrying two Afghans from a German relief agency in a former Taliban stronghold, killing them both.

The aid workers were returning from work on Tuesday on a project run by the Malteser aid agency in Zurmat district of Paktia, 120km south of Kabul, when shots were fired at their car from a passing vehicle.

Mohammed Idrees Sadiq died at the scene, while the other, 19-year-old Emal Abdul Samad, succumbed to his injuries after being flown to a US military hospital at Bagram, north of Kabul, the group said Wednesday.

The German group said it was "shocked" and suspended its activities in the region until further notice.

It was not immediately clear who carried out the attack. Officials at the Malteser office in the capital, Kabul, said they didn't want to get involved in speculation.

But civilians have been increasingly targeted in a wave of violence that has left more than 700 people dead in Afghanistan this year, including 24 aid workers killed in attacks blamed mainly on Taliban militants.

Ingo Radtke, the head of the Malteser's foreign operations said the agency was "shocked by this terrible act and very concerned about the security situation which is increasingly tense also because of the approaching elections."

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