Hamid Karzai escapes as Taleban target military parade

President Hamid Karzai escaped a dramatic attempt on his life today when Taleban fighters opened fire with automatic weapons and rockets during a military parade in Kabul.

The President, Afghan MPs and foreign dignitaries including the British Ambassador had to scramble for cover when they came under fire at the end of a 21-gun salute to mark the downfall of the communist government in 1992, Afghanistan’s most important state occasion.

Mr Karzai, who had just saluted Afghan National Army soldiers, was immediately surrounded by bodyguards then driven from the scene as a 15 minute gunfight broke out. He quickly appeared on television to reassure the nation that he had survived.

Witnesses described snipers’ bullets ricocheting from the stage where the dignitaries had been gathered and seeing MPs slump in their seats when the firing began.

The president himself apparently came close to death. Mohammad Amin Fatimie, the Health Minister who was seated just three metres from Mr Karzai, said: “As soon as the first bullets hit, the President was covered by bodyguards. He was escorted out. I could see bullets ricocheting, black smoke, and I could smell gunpowder.”

Police sources said three gunmen were killed. One person was killed and 11 people, including some Afghan MPs, were wounded. A Taleban spokesman claimed other attackers had escaped.

Mr Karzai has survived several assassination attempts in the past and is one of the top targets for insurgents, although a Taleban spokesman who claimed responsibility insisted that the attack had not been aimed at the President but had been intended to show that nowhere in Afghanistan was safe.

Kabul was under virtual lockdown for the ceremony, with police and army in balaclavas stopping and searching cars and closing down many of the capital’s roads.

A massive security operation had lasted for several days before yesterday’s event. The assassination threat to the president is now so severe that he rarely ventures out of his heavily-guarded palace in Kabul, called the Arg, and is surrounded at all times by US-trained Afghan bodyguards.

The attack seemed to confirm fears that insurgents are increasingly able to mount large-scale spectacular attacks in the Afghan capital, even as their fighting strength appears to be waning in the south where Taleban fighters have been slaughtered fighting heavily-armoured Nato troops.

Sir Sherard Cowper-Cowles, the British Ambassador, was standing on the front row of the dais alongside the U.S. envoy to Kabul. He told Reuters news agency: “It was coming to the end of the 21-gun salute. I saw an explosion and a puff of dust to the left of the parade and then heard the crackle of small arms fire from all directions. After some hesitation my bodyguard frog-marched me away.”

All Cabinet ministers and foreign diplomats who attended were unhurt, as was General Dan McNeill the US commander of international forces in Afghanistan. Officials later confirmed that a tribal chief had been killed.

Witnesses at the scene said that firing appeared to be coming from a building a few hundred metres from the main dais. There was pandemonium as gunfire cracked out.

Spectators and journalists attempted to escape or take cover and the President’s bodyguards, who are clad in black, took up firing positions.

Bandsmen in ceremonial dress and ordinary soldiers ran away along with civilians and state television went off the air when the attack began.

Security men shouted out to the crowd to stay where they were or they would be hit by gunfire.

During some terrorist attacks in Afghanistan the majority of casualties have been caused by security men firing wildly. Mr Karzai told TV viewers that they could rest assured that everything was calm, and later insisted in a statement that the army and police were maintaining security and that the situation was under control.

Afghan intelligence is believed to have foiled several attempted spectacular attacks in recent weeks. Disrupting Afghanistan’s most important state ceremony as it was broadcast to the nation will provide a massive propaganda coup for the Taleban, however, and will demoralise Kabulis who already feel distinctly unsafe in their own city.

With the spring fighting season getting underway there are fears that an insurgent onslaught could be imminent.

Speaking by phone afterwards from an undisclosed location, a Taleban spokesman, Zabihullah Mujahid, said “We fired rockets at the scene of the celebration. We had placed six personnel in the area.

“Our aim was not to directly hit someone. We just wanted to show to the world that we can attack anywhere.”

Last year the Taleban fired rockets at President Karzai as he was making a speech in the provincial town of Ghazni and in 2004 rockets were fired at his helicopter as he arrived for an election rally. He was nearly killed in 2002 when an ex-Taleban fighter opened fire on him but he was quickly shot dead by the US bodyguards who protected the President at the time.