Afghan President Hamid Karzai escaped an apparent assassination attempt Thursday when a rocket was fired at his helicopter as he was about to land in a provincial capital. The attack caused no injuries or damage, but forced Karzai to cancel his first trip outside Kabul since he began campaigning for presidential elections to be held Oct. 9.
Officials and witnesses said the rocket flew over a crowd of several hundred people waiting to greet Karzai near the town of Gardez, about 80 miles south of Kabul. The president's helicopter was about to land, but instead immediately returned to Kabul without touching the ground.
"We couldn't see it, but we heard the sound as it went over," said Rafiullah Mojadeddi, an aide to Karzai who had already landed in a separate helicopter. "There was no danger to the president."
Karzai played down the incident after his return to the capital, telling journalists he wished he could have landed anyway and continued with the school-opening ceremony he was scheduled to attend. A spokesman also said Karzai was "a little upset" that his security team insisted he cancel his trip.
But the attack, for which the revived Taliban Islamic militia that was ousted from power in 2001 asserted responsibility, seemed likely to further constrain Karzai's ability to campaign outside the capital as he would like.
Security around Karzai, 46, has been extremely tight since he survived an assassination attempt just over two years ago while visiting the southern city of Kandahar. In that incident, a uniformed gunman jumped in front of his vehicle and opened fire, wounding several passengers before being shot by Karzai's security agents.
After that attack, Karzai's Afghan bodyguards were replaced by a U.S. security detail at the Bush administration's insistence, and he has remained largely confined to his heavily guarded palace compound in Kabul. Karzai, who was named head of the interim government in December 2001 under a U.N. plan, has received strong backing from Washington.
Karzai was traveling in a U.S. military helicopter for Thursday's trip. A U.S. military spokesman here, Maj. Mark McCann, declined to discuss Karzai's means of transportation, but he confirmed that a rocket had been fired at the president's helicopter and had missed, landing several hundred yards from the school Karzai was to visit.
The pre-election period has been marred by repeated attacks against voter registration workers and facilities, mostly carried out by Taliban forces. The Taliban has vowed to sabotage the election -- the first national poll in Afghanistan in three decades of war and turmoil, and the country's first-ever presidential election.
A purported Taliban spokesman told news agencies in Kabul by telephone that the group had fired the rocket at Karzai. Officials in Gardez, the capital of Paktia province, said Thursday night that they had located the launching site in an abandoned house and arrested several suspects.
"Security has been a concern during the voter registration period, and it will be a continuing concern during the campaign, on voting day and during ballot counting," Manoel de Almeida e Silva, the U.N. spokesman here, said Thursday night. "But just as those who want to spoil the election see this as a target period, the security forces are prepared to deal with these threats."
A dozen election workers have been killed in attacks in the past several months, and more than 1,000 people have been killed in violence during the last year, including security troops, Islamic guerrillas, and foreign and Afghan aid workers. The French aid group Doctors Without Borders withdrew from Afghanistan on July 28, after five of its aid workers were killed in a June 2 ambush. The group, which had operated in the country for more than two decades, criticized the government for being unable or unwilling to make arrests in the killings.
On Aug. 29, a powerful car bomb exploded in the heart of downtown Kabul, killing at least seven people including two Americans, and injuring several dozen. The blast occurred just outside the office of a U.S. company that provides security for a variety of government and private agencies here.
More than 4,000 international peacekeepers patrol the capital, and NATO officials have pledged to send more troops to protect the election. In addition, about 15,000 American troops are based in Afghanistan, where U.S. forces have been hunting for Taliban and al Qaeda fighters since early 2002, mostly along the rugged border with Pakistan.
The rocket attack in Gardez occurred on the same day that eight of Karzai's 17 rivals for the presidency called for a one-month delay in the voting, saying there was not enough time to campaign because of poor roads, communications and security in much of the country. The new Afghan constitution allows 30 days for the campaign, which began last week.
"One month is not enough. You cannot travel to 34 provinces under these conditions," said Sayed Homayoun Shah Assefy, 64, a lawyer and presidential candidate. He said that the government was supposed to provide security for all candidates but that "so far they have done nothing." He said he plans to campaign in both western and eastern Afghanistan in any case.
Karzai had already said that he did not plan to campaign extensively outside Kabul but that his two vice presidential running mates, Ahmed Zia Massoud and Karim Khalili, would travel widely throughout the country in his place.