Afghan resistance leader eulogized

Al-Qaida suicide bombers killed anti-Taliban fighter days before 9/11 attacks

September 10, 2002|By KNIGHT RIDDER/TRIBUNE

KABUL, Afghanistan - Thousand of Afghans turned out yesterday to pay tribute to their national hero, Ahmed Shah Massood, the legendary Northern Alliance commander whom al-Qaida suicide bombers killed two days before the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11.

Bearing somber banners, colorful wreaths and larger-than-life-size portraits, friends, colleagues and even former rivals eulogized Massood as a man who dedicated his life to freeing Afghanistan from Soviet occupation in the 1980s and later from the hard-line Taliban regime.

One woman read a poem that called Massood "the hero of our story ... the red flower of our summer."

For five years after the Taliban captured the capital, Kabul, in 1996, Massood's poorly equipped force of 25,000, mainly Tajiks and other ethnic minorities, held out as the last bulwark between the Taliban and a complete takeover of Afghanistan. By the time Massood was assassinated, his forces had steadily lost ground until they controlled only his native Panjshir Valley and a small northeastern corner of the country, hard against the border with Tajikistan.

Some experts think Osama bin Laden ordered Massood's assassination as a favor to Taliban leader Mullah Mohammed Omar. Bin Laden reportedly also thought that with Massood gone, resistance against the Taliban would crumble and the United States, without a strong Afghan allied force, would be less likely to go to war in Afghanistan in retaliation for the attacks.

Northern Alliance officials kept Massood's death a secret for more than two days after he was assassinated, fearful that their troops might collapse in the face of a renewed Taliban offensive. But the offensive failed, and within a month, U.S. warplanes were pounding the Taliban into submission.

Security was tight yesterday for Massood's memorial, in the spartan confines of Kabul stadium, where only a year ago the Taliban carried out public executions and other extreme punishments such as amputating the hands of thieves. Heavily armed international peacekeepers and Afghan militiamen, some wearing T-shirts emblazoned with Massood's likeness, stood guard inside the stadium.

The heavy security presence was a reminder that al-Qaida and other extremists still threaten Afghanistan's fragile peace. Only four days earlier, a would-be assassin's bullet barely missed President Hamid Karzai in the southern city of Kandahar, and a car bomb in Kabul killed 30 people and wounded scores more.

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