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Afghan leader escapes rocket attack

By Associated Press
Published September 17, 2004

KABUL, Afghanistan - Assailants fired a rocket at an American helicopter taking President Hamid Karzai on a rare foray into Afghanistan's troubled provinces Thursday, but it missed and he escaped injury.

However, the attack forced Karzai to cancel his first trip outside Kabul since he began campaigning for the Oct. 9 presidential election.

Karzai has survived at least one previous attempt on his life. He made light of the attack, which renewed concern about the U.S.-backed leader's safety amid Taliban threats to derail the election.

Officials arrested three suspects.

The U.S. military said the rocket missed the chopper as it approached a landing zone near Gardez, 60 miles south of Kabul. Karzai planned to open a school in Gardez.

"The rocket was fired at the helicopter as it was landing, and missed," said Maj. Mark McCann, a U.S. spokesman.

The helicopter did not touch down and returned the president to Kabul. Two Chinooks escorted by helicopter gunships were seen over the downtown area around noon.

No one was hurt by the attack, either on the ground or in the air, presidential spokesman Jawed Ludin said.

Ludin said the rocket came down in a village about a mile from Gardez. However, McCann and the local governor said the impact site was only 300 to 500 yards from the landing zone.

By Thursday evening, Ludin said investigators had found the launch site in Rabat, just west of Gardez. Residents helped them track three people on two motorcycles to a nearby village, where the three were arrested.

"We're still investigating to find out who they are and where they came from," Ludin said.

A purported Taliban spokesman told news agencies in Kabul by telephone that the group had fired the rocket at Karzai. Remnants of the former Taliban regime have waged a stubborn insurgency against Karzai's administration and foreign forces. This year alone, more than 900 people have been reported killed in political violence.

In an effort to protect against additional political violence, the Pentagon has ordered about 700 airborne soldiers to deploy to Afghanistan to provide security before the election, U.S. military officials in Washington said Thursday. The troops will come from the 82nd Airborne Division at Fort Bragg, N.C., and will reinforce the 18,000 coalition forces already in the country, they said.

Officials are bracing for a surge in violence ahead of the election, which Afghanistan's international sponsors hope will cement the shaky peace process begun after the United States ousted the Taliban in 2001 for harboring Osama bin Laden.

Karzai dropped a powerful anti-Taliban faction leader as his running mate and took advantage of a burst of infighting in the west to oust the region's strongman.

The aborted school opening was a setback for Karzai, who is trying to muster a majority in the ballot and avoid a runoff. He said he protested to his guards when they returned him to Kabul because of what he called a "small rocket blast."

"I told them we want to land, but the security forces said, "No, it's our job and we are just days from the election,' " Karzai told Voice of America's Afghan radio service.

He joked that he would have to give them the slip: "I want to move freely among the people and talk to them."

Karzai has been constantly shadowed by Afghan and American bodyguards armed with automatic weapons since the July 2002 killing of a vice president and the September 2002 assassination attempt on the president in the southern city of Kandahar. Three people, including the gunman, died in that attack.

Information from the Washington Post was used in this report.

[Last modified September 17, 2004, 02:35:25]

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