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Afghan presidential candidate escapes assassination attempt but 6 civilians killed

KABUL – The leading Afghan presidential candidate, Abdullah Abdullah, narrowly escaped an assassination attempt Friday when two bombs struck his convoy after a campaign event in the capital, a reminder of Afghanistan’s fragility as it prepares for its first democratic transfer of power with foreign combat troops set to withdraw by the end of the year.

Abdullah was unharmed and went on to speak at another campaign rally, but it was a close call. Six civilians were killed and many more were wounded in the attack, which destroyed several cars and storefronts and left the street littered with twisted metal and other rubble.

Although there was no immediate claim of responsibility, the bombings bore the hallmarks of Taliban militants who have vowed to disrupt the election as part of their fight against the Western-backed government.

“My car was the target,” Abdullah, 53, told Tolo TV. “It was a big conspiracy against me.”

At the rally, Abdullah told the crowd that his “vehicle was destroyed, but fortunately we escaped it unharmed. Unfortunately a number of our security guards were wounded in the incident, but thankfully their injuries are not so serious.”

The bombings came just over a week before a runoff vote in which Afghans are to choose a new leader to replace outgoing President Hamid Karzai. The Taliban have staged a series of high-profile attacks this year, though the first round of voting on April 5 was relatively peaceful. The attempt on Abdullah’s life appeared to be the first direct attack on a candidate, as earlier ones targeted only campaign offices and workers.

If one of the candidates were to die, that would have huge implications not only for Afghanistan’s stability but for the Obama administration’s hopes for a signed security agreement in time to make preparations for keeping about 10,000 U.S. troops in the country for another two years. The Afghan constitution says new elections must be held in the event of a candidate’s death.

Karzai condemned the bombings, saying they were staged by “enemies of Afghanistan who don’t want free elections.”

Abdullah had just addressed a rally at a wedding hall and was heading toward a campaign event at the Intercontinental Hotel when his convoy was hit along a street in a commercial area of western Kabul. The attack took place about noon, when many Afghans were indoors for Friday prayers.

Interior Ministry spokesman Sediq Sediqqi said a suicide bombing was followed by a roadside bomb. He said nobody in Abdullah’s entourage was killed. The ministry later issued a statement saying six civilians were killed and 22 were wounded.

But Kabul police chief Mohammed Zahir said both explosions were carried out by suicide bombers — the first was a driver who blew up a vehicle and the second was a suicide bomber on foot. Conflicting accounts are common in the chaotic immediate aftermath of attacks in Afghanistan.

A former Afghan foreign minister, Abdullah was the runner-up in the disputed presidential elections of 2009 and hopes again now to succeed Karzai, who is constitutionally barred from seeking a third term.

Abdullah is the front-runner for the June 14 runoff, facing former Finance Minister Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai. In the first round of elections April 5, he garnered 45 per cent of votes while Ahmadzai came in second with 31.6 per cent. Former presidential candidate Zalmai Rassoul, who is now supporting Abdullah, also was in the car with Abdullah on Friday but was not injured.

Abdullah — who is half Pashtun and half Tajik — has a strong following among ethnic Tajiks but has sought to broaden his support base by choosing a well-known leader of the minority ethnic Hazara group and a Pashtun leader of the powerful Hezb-i-Islami group as vice-presidential candidates.

The vote comes at a pivotal time as the international community prepares to withdraw combat forces. The U.S. and its coalition allies have tried to transform a small and ineffectual Afghan military and police into a huge force of 350,000, but huge obstacles remain. Large parts of the country have become practically inaccessible.

Both Abdullah and Ahmadzai have pledged to sign a security pact with the U.S. that will allow American troops to remain in the country after 2014 in a training and advisory capacity. Karzai refused to sign it and has irritated Washington with his anti-American rhetoric.

Although billions of dollars have poured into the country since the fall of the Taliban regime in 2001, much of this money landed in the pockets of corrupt businessmen and politicians, further widening the divide between rich and poor. The rampant poverty has helped keep alive the Taliban insurgency, which shows no sign of letting up.

In the early days after the U.S.-led alliance toppled the Taliban regime in 2001, Abdullah became the face of Afghanistan’s anti-Taliban movement, giving frequent press conferences to international media.

Abdullah previously served as a close aide to the late Ahmad Shah Masood, the Northern Alliance rebel commander who was killed in an al-Qaida suicide bombing two days before the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.

“The enemy cannot defeat us or prevent the decision of the people of Afghanistan,” he declared after Friday’s attack.