Ethnic split grows in Afghanistan's government

The death of a cabinet minister highlights divisions in the interim administration.

Two months into its term, Afghanistan's interim government is struggling with ethnic divisions in its ranks that threaten to drive this country back to the kind of internecine strife that rocked it from 1991 to 1996, prior to the Taliban's rise.

Aviation Minister Abdul Rahman was killed at the Kabul airport last week. Interim leader Hamid Karzai blames the killing on high-ranking members of his own cabinet.

Afghanistan's interim government is split between members of the "Rome group," which consists of Pashtuns, including Mr. Karzai, and a smaller portion of minorities such as Rahman, who was a Tajik. The more powerful segment - which controls the security, defense, and intelligence ministries - is made up mostly of ethnic Tajiks from the Panjshir region north of Kabul.

The domination of the so-called "Panjshiri group," which controls the country's three key ministries - defense, interior, and intelligence - will make a fair trial for the accused extremely difficult, say Western diplomats in Kabul. Two chief suspects are reportedly in custody in Saudi Arabia, and Afghan officials are pushing for their extradition. Meanwhile, one of the accused - national security chief Gen. Juraat Khan Panjshiri - has been suspended but continues going to work in his office.

Close associates of Karzai - who support the expected return of King Zahir Shah next month - say the evidence is mounting of a murder conspiracy at the highest levels in the Panjshiri group. But they doubt justice will be done given the balance of power.

The accusations against leading Panjshiris, first voiced Friday night by Karzai, have gained new weight, according to some members of five-member government committee investigating the murder. Minister of Frontier and Tribal Affairs Aman Ullah Khan says Rahman was seated on a plane Thursday night when five or six men broke through a cockpit window in a premeditated murder. "The airline seat next to that of minister had been ripped up, but there was no blood inside the airplane because the minister was thrown off the plane at about a 1-1/2 story drop," he says.

He says the pilot pleaded over the radio for help from the ministry of the interior for nearly two hours. He claims the airliner's black box holds evidence that will help convict Gen. Juraat and his fellow "conspirators."

Mr. Ullah Khan also says General Juraat was in the mob that surrounded the minister's airliner as it waited to leave for New Delhi. Also present among several thousand pilgrims headed to Mecca, was the country's top intelligence chief, Abdul Ajan Tawhidi, who did nothing to discourage the attackers, he says.

The Ariana Airlines pilot told the investigating committee that the departing minister was asked to sign his own resignation. After Rahman refused, the conspirators tossed him to the tarmac and stabbed him to death.

After Ullah Khan presented the evidence of his team's investigation to Afghan leader Karzai late Friday afternoon, members of the investigating committee and the Rome Group went to top generals in both the United Nations and the US special forces and made their last-ditch plea for help.

"We told them, 'If you cannot control the security situation and if you do not help us get to the bottom of this murder, we will have to leave Afghanistan in your hands,' " he said. "That is why they brought pressure on Defense Minister Gen. Fahim and other Northern Alliance members to help in the investigation."

Ullah Khan said senior UN and US officials agreed to help. A letter was then faxed to Saudi Arabia asking it to return the suspected conspirators to Afghanistan.

Ullah Khan and several fellow members of the Rome Group say the killing was a political murder meant to weaken the growing power of the royalist movement in Afghanistan. "The first thing we need to do is have arrests, then the justice ministry can begin a thorough investigation," he adds.

Afghanistan's interim government is due to last through to the summer, and so the power of the Panjshiri group may remain unchallenged.

Pir Sayed Ishaq Gailani, the head of the National Solidarity Movement of Afghanistan and a close friend of the slain man, complains that "intellectuals have been thrown out and not allowed in. There is no security and no one knows who will be the next target. The night before, he told me ... he feared for his life."

Mr. Gailani is calling for a bolstered international peacekeeping mission to investigate, but prospects for third-party intervention don't look promising.

Senior British officers in the UN-mandated ISAF force say their forces, which also sit in the control tower, never heard the pilot's radioed pleas. "He could have been radioing to the civilian side of the airfield," said ISAF spokesman Jonathan Turner. "Radio pleas would have been responded to."

Ullah Khan says ISAF needs to help Afghanistan's fragile interim government get to the bottom of the murder. "If the international community is not interested in this case and does not want to do anything about it, we will leave," he says. "Even the US won't be able to stay here on the ground when a civil war breaks out here."

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