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Afghan intelligence foils plot to assassinate US ambassador

Three arrested at site of road dedication

KABUL, Afghanistan -- Afghan intelligence agents thwarted a plot to assassinate outspoken US Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad, swooping down on a station wagon carrying three Pakistanis armed with Kalashnikovs and rocket-propelled grenades, officials said yesterday.

The arrests were made just days after President Hamid Karzai and US officials warned that foreign fighters were slipping into Afghanistan to cause havoc ahead of parliamentary elections.

The men were arrested Sunday in the Qarghayi District of northeastern Laghman Province, just 150 feet from where Khalilzad had planned to inaugurate a road with Afghanistan's interior minister, two senior Afghan officials said.

The officials said agents were lying in wait after intelligence forces were tipped off about the plot. Khalilzad, who is to be the next US ambassador in Iraq, canceled his appearance at the road opening at the last minute and was never in danger. The interior minister, Ali Ahmad Jalali, also canceled his appearance.

Presidential spokesman Jawed Ludin confirmed the arrests, and Deputy National Security Director Abdullah told the privately owned Tolo TV that the men were between the ages of 19 and 23.

Afghan television broadcast a video of the suspects in custody, being questioned by a man off camera. They identified themselves as Murat Khan, Noor Alam, and Zahid, and said they were from Pakistan.

None confessed on camera or was asked any questions about the planned attack. But the two senior officials said the men had admitted their guilt to intelligence agents and told authorities they were in Afghanistan ''to fight jihad," or holy war.

The officials, both of whom have intimate knowledge of the investigation, spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the intelligence and their positions within the government.

''Their aim was to assassinate Khalilzad, and they came to Afghanistan specifically for this operation," one of the officials said.

Khalilzad, 54, became America's top diplomat in Afghanistan in November 2003 after serving as Washington's special representative in the country. Born in Afghanistan, he has long been involved in crafting Washington's policy on the region.

Khalilzad has not shied away from offering his opinion about Afghan political players, earning a reputation as the true power behind the US-backed Karzai. He has also repeatedly criticized Pakistan, prompting official protests from Islamabad.

News of the plot follows three months of unprecedented bloodshed across the south and east. At least 280 rebels and 29 US troops have been killed since March.

Yesterday, fighting between Taliban militants and Afghan security forces left 18 insurgents and five others dead, a day after the US military pounded suspected rebels in airstrikes that killed as many as 20.

The spike in fighting has raised fears that the Afghan war is widening as the nation gears up for September parliamentary elections. Khalilzad himself warned on Thursday that the vote would be a likely target of insurgents.

It was not immediately clear who sent the men, but one of the Afghan officials said the fact that the plotters knew details of Khalilzad's trip, and were aware that Jalali was supposed to be with him, was ''very disturbing."

One of the officials said the Afghan government was extremely angry at what he called a lack of cooperation from Pakistan in stopping militants from crossing the border. He said Islamabad's lack of resolve was a factor in both the assassination plot and the recent surge in violence.

Afghan officials say privately they believe some elements of the Pakistani Army and intelligence network are helping Taliban and Al Qaeda fighters.

Pakistan vehemently denies the allegations. Officials boast that they have stationed tens of thousands of troops along the border and arrested more than 700 Al Qaeda suspects.

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