Mon, Sep 12, 2005 - Page 5 News List

Afghan gunmen botch attack

ASSASSINATION Nine Afghan soldiers have been arrested after the defense minister's convoy was hit by four bullets -- just after he had been dropped off

AP , KABUL, AFGHANISTAN

A man walks past election posters for different candidates as he goes to work early in the morning in Kabul, Afghanistan yesterday. Afghanistan will hold parliamentary elections on Sunday.

PHOTO: AP

Gunmen botched a brazen assassination attempt on Afghanistan's defense minister, opening fire on his convoy after he had gotten out at the capital's airport, while fresh fighting in the south left 30 suspected militants dead, officials said.

The violence on Saturday came as US military commanders warned in an interview that the Taliban may try to subvert legislative elections in a week with "spectacular" assaults, using car bombs and suicide attackers.

But Major General Jason Kamiya, the top operational commander in Afghanistan, said he was confident that enough US troops and other forces are in place to ensure the polls are a success.

Separately, a helicopter carrying Afghanistan's army chief and three Cabinet ministers crashed and exploded in flames while taking off, but all on board managed to escape the burning wreckage with minor injuries. The government called it an accident.

Nine Afghan soldiers have been arrested in connection with the attempt to shoot Defense Minister Rahim Wardak, ministry spokesman General Mohammed Saher Azimi said.

Four bullets hit his convoy as it was leaving the airport after dropping off him and several other ministers. One bullet hit "the exact place where the defense minister had been sitting in the car," Azimi said, and a defense ministry staffer was wounded.

"It is clear that it was an assassination attempt on the defense minister," he said.

The motive for the shooting was not immediately clear. A senior government official, speaking on condition of anonymity because he is not authorized to speak on the matter, said the soldiers were angry over a pay dispute.

Sunday's elections are the next key step toward democracy after a quarter-century of war. The Taliban have stepped up attacks in the past six months, leaving more than 1,200 people dead, and have vowed to disrupt the polls.

A US military intelligence official, Chief Warrant Officer Larry Tersone, said that the militants are expected to "start ramping up operations" toward voting day. He said the main threat was believed to be car bombs and suicide attacks against polling stations.

"I think they will try to conduct an operation of a spectacular nature within a significant population center because that is the immediate attention-getter they are looking for," he said.

He said the military was also on the lookout for lone militants using rockets against people queuing to vote and was prepared to deal with the threat.

But Kamiya said the military was prepared to deal with the threat.

"We are in a posture to disrupt, pre-empt and discourage enemy actions," he said.

Asked if the polls would be successful, Kamiya said, "I am 100 percent confident."

About 20,000 American troops are in Afghanistan as part of a 21,000-strong US-led coalition. There is a separate force of 11,000 NATO-led peacekeepers.

Coalition forces have gone on the offensive in recent weeks, killing and arresting hundreds of suspected militants in raids across volatile southern and eastern regions in preparation for the polls.

In the latest operation, Azimi said Afghan and US-led forces killed 30 suspected militants and arrested a large number of others on Friday in southern Helmand Province, which has suffered several insurgent attacks in recent weeks.

Scores of weapons were discovered in the area, including some that were lying in farm fields.

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