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Afghanistan grieves for slain ex-president

Warnings that his death marks end of peace process

A mourner held up a poster of former Afghan President Burhanuddin Rabbani, who died in a suicide bomb attack. A mourner held up a poster of former Afghan President Burhanuddin Rabbani, who died in a suicide bomb attack. (Kamran Jebreili/Associated Press)
By Alissa J. Rubin and Jack Healy
New York Times / September 22, 2011

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KABUL - The mourners arrived early yesterday morning, streaming into a hastily erected funeral tent to honor Afghanistan’s latest martyr, even as they declared the death of the cause he was killed pursuing: a negotiated peace deal with the Taliban.

As the country reeled from the assassination of former president Burhanuddin Rabbani, the head of Afghanistan’s High Peace Council, scores of aging guerrilla fighters, tribal elders, politicians, and red-eyed mourners filled the streets to express the grief and pessimism stirred by his death.

Young men held posters of Rabbani and carried banners lauding Afghans who have been killed or maimed in years of fighting. Some offered calls for unity and peace, while others voiced darker sentiments. One demonstrator shouted that anyone who supported efforts to broker a deal with the Taliban to end a decade of war - Rabbani’s cause - was “the enemy of Afghanistan.’’

“The people of Afghanistan should now unite to break the jaw of the Taliban,’’ said General Mohammed Amin, flanked by heavily armed guards.

Rabbani’s death threatened to exacerbate tensions among Afghanistan’s ethnic groups and to further weaken support for the peace process, especially among the Tajik and Hazara ethnic groups from the heavily Pashtun south, who have long been leery of any deal with the Taliban.

The ethnic makeup of those who gathered yesterday to quietly pay respects for Rabbani - a Tajik from northern Afghanistan’s Badakhshan Province - underlined those divides. Only a handful of mourners were Pashtuns, Afghanistan’s largest ethnic group.

As President Hamid Karzai cut short a trip to New York to attend the UN General Assembly, the Afghan government declared three days of mourning and discussed plans to bury Rabbani on a hilltop not far from the upscale Kabul neighborhood where he was killed at his residence.

The attacker, claiming that he carried a “very important and positive message’’ from the Taliban leadership in western Pakistan, was ushered into Rabbani’s heavily guarded home for a meeting Tuesday night, Afghan officials said. When he leaned in to greet Rabbani with a hug, he detonated explosives in his turban.

The head of the peace council’s secretariat, Masoom Stanekzai, and three others were wounded in the blast.

The Taliban, which often claim responsibility almost immediately for political assassinations and attacks against NATO and Afghan security forces, remained quiet yesterday about the attack. In a Twitter posting, a Taliban spokesman denied taking responsibility for the assassination.

Suspicions fell on Pakistan-based militant groups such as the Haqqani network, a fierce adversary of Western forces in Afghanistan that has ties to Pakistan’s intelligence services. US officials said the Haqqanis were to blame for an assault this month on the US Embassy in Kabul.

“This terrorist attack definitely was organized and planned from outside Afghanistan,’’ Hanif Atmar, a former interior minister, said of Rabbani’s assassination.

The peace process achieved little under Rabbani, a mujahedeen fighter in the 1980s who fled to the north during the Taliban’s rule and returned to Kabul after the Americans swept the Taliban from power in 2001.

A small but growing number of low-level Taliban fighters have agreed to join the government’s side in exchange for small stipends and opportunities to work, but few high-level Taliban commanders have accepted invitations to negotiate, and some of those who did were unmasked as impostors.

To many of the mourners gathered outside Rabbani’s home, his assassination rang the death knell for a peace process that they had long mistrusted.

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