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Bomb Kills Several in Apparent Afghan Assassination Attempt

By David Zucchino and Rone Tempest
LOS ANGELES TIMES -- jalalabad, afghanistan

In what appeared to be an assassination attempt against Afghanistan’s defense minister, a fiery bomb exploded Monday in a lunchtime market packed with flag-waving schoolchildren dispatched to greet the official.

At least five people were killed, including two children and a teen-age boy, and 64 people were injured. The bomb missed the heavily armed convoy of Defense Minister Mohammed Qassim Fahim by just 200 yards.

Tensions had been high in this eastern provincial capital because of opposition to a government crackdown on opium poppy cultivation and simmering hostility toward Fahim, an ethnic Tajik deeply resented by Pashtuns who dominate the region. In the last two nights, unsigned posters have appeared, warning that anyone supporting the government risks death and that “killing government officials is legitimate.”

In an attempt to build crowds for Fahim, teachers emptied classrooms.

The bombing came just days after the interim government rounded up about 300 members of the Hezb-i-Islami political party, most of them Pashtuns, on charges of plotting to overthrow the government. Hezb-i-Islami officials described the arrests as an anti-Pashtun campaign by ethnic Tajik ministers. About 160 people remain in custody.

The ethnic conflict added a new layer of fear and anxiety to a country on edge because of armed factions jockeying for position ahead of a national assembly scheduled in June.

In an interview Sunday night, Haji Mohammed Zaman, the regional security chief, had dismissed security concerns with a wave of his hand.

That evening, Zaman’s officers tried and failed to organize soldiers in ill-fitting uniforms into a coherent formation during a dress rehearsal for the defense minister’s visit. Their poor training was evident in the moments after the bomb exploded, when attempts to turn around the convoy of dignitaries produced gridlock as victims lay bleeding and dying.

Vehicles bumped back and forth for several minutes before security officials finally drove Fahim to a military base outside Jalalabad. He delivered a scheduled two-hour speech on ethnic unity, then returned to the capital, Kabul, by helicopter a day earlier than planned.

“They killed civilians and students who were there in the spirit of happiness, and they made it into a sad occasion,” Fahim said. “The attack was meant not only to kill me. They wanted to cause a disruption and send a message.”