160 men released after Afghan sweep on fear of coup

Former detainees allege political, ethnic motives

April 05, 2002|By BOSTON GLOBE

KABUL, Afghanistan - The Afghan government released yesterday 140 men it rounded up this week on suspicion of plotting a coup, but officials were still questioning 160 others suspected of planning "terrorism, abductions, and sabotage."

Interior Minister Yunus Qanooni acknowledged that authorities had wrongly detained many suspects in a sweep of alleged associates of former mujahedeen prime minister Gulbuddin Hekmatyar.

But Qanooni said the government had foiled attempts on the lives of Hamid Karzai, the interim Afghan prime minister; former King Mohammed Zahir Shah; and international peacekeepers.

He said authorities found explosives and remote-control devices, and suggested that co-conspirators in neighboring countries might be involved. The plot allegedly included efforts to disrupt the loya jirga, or grand assembly, that will choose the next government in two months.

However, several of those who were held for days before being cleared of charges said they believe authorities are trying to wipe out political opponents under the guise of thwarting a coup.

Those arrested were accused of belonging to Hekmatyar's once-powerful party, Hezb-e-Islami, and most were Pashtuns, the largest ethnic group in Afghanistan.

The defeated Taliban regime was largely Pashtun. The leaders of the Northern Alliance forces, including Qanooni, that ousted the Taliban and dominate the current government are mostly Tajiks.

Several associates of Karzai, who is a Pashtun, were swept up in this week's sting, including a deputy agriculture minister, the governor of Paktia Province, a senior judge, and an adviser to Karzai, according to detainees interviewed.

Karzai did not know about or approve the sting, according to one of his associates who has been released.

A 50-year-old Pashtun who was a commander with Hekmatyar's forces during the anti-Soviet war, but who now works for a United Nations-funded aid group, said he was held for two days until Karzai sent an envoy to secure his release.

He accused "the triangle" of Tajik leaders - Qanooni, Defense Minister Mohammad Fahim and Foreign Minister Abdullah Abdullah - of inventing the coup plot to serve their political interests.

"Behind this roundup, they were trying to interrupt the peace process and the loya jirga and stay in power," said the man, who spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of being rearrested.

"If ISAF [the International Security Assistance Force] were not here," he said, referring to the British-led peacekeepers in Kabul, "Karzai could not rule the country for even one day."

In interviews over the past two weeks, many Afghan intelligence and security officials have repeatedly said - but offered no evidence - that Hekmatyar had joined forces with Taliban rebels and their former sponsors in Pakistan to overthrow the U.S.-backed interim administration.

Hekmatyar was once the largest recipient of U.S. Central Intelligence Agency aid during the anti-Soviet war and was Pakistan's favorite mujahedeen commander. Washington and Islamabad both later dumped him for being too brutal and power-hungry.

An ISAF spokesman said the accused plotters arrested this week included Pakistani members of Jamaat-e-Islami, a Pakistan fundamentalist party with ties to Hekmatyar. The same group was implicated in the seizure this week in Kabul of 32 AK-47 assault rifles in a Pakistani car.

Outside the intelligence compound where the accused plotters are being held, many elderly and infirm men and young teens were seen being released yesterday.

Intelligence agents tried to prevent interviews and threatened to beat a photographer, but the men managed to recount stories of wrongful arrest and detention in squalid, cramped conditions away from the building.

The men estimated that as many as 800 people had been rounded up, not 300 as the government says. They said Pashtuns and other turbaned men had been picked up.

Haji Gula Mir Shah, 56, said he had come to Kabul from Logar Province to see a doctor and was in front of the Ministry of Public Health when he was grabbed by an intelligence agent.

The men said they were interrogated about whether they belonged to political parties and what they did during the Taliban regime.

Karzai was in Turkey yesterday, and neither he nor his spokesmen could be reached for comment.

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