Afghan intelligence agents have scuttled a plot to assassinate outspoken US Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad, swooping down on a station wagon carrying three Pakistanis armed with Kalashnikov rifles and rocket-propelled grenades, officials said today.
The arrests come days after Afghan President Hamid Karzai and US officials warned foreign fighters are slipping into Afghanistan to cause mayhem ahead of parliamentary elections.
The men, who were armed with rocket-propelled grenades and assault rifles, were arrested in the Qarghayi district of northeastern Laghman province yesterday, just 150 feet from where Khalilzad had planned to inaugurate a road with Afghanistan’s interior minister, two senior Afghan officials said.
Khalilzad cancelled his appearance at the road opening at the last minute and was never in danger.
The interior minister, Ali Ahmad Jalali, also cancelled his appearance.
Presidential spokesman Jawed Ludin confirmed the arrests, and Deputy National Security Director Abdullah told privately-owned Tolo TV the men were all between the ages of 19 and 23.
Afghan television broadcast a video of the assassination suspects in custody - all wearing traditional clothing and sporting thin moustaches – sitting on a brown sofa and 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 were asked any questions about the attack on Khalilzad, who is to be the next US ambassador in Iraq.
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.
“Their aim was to assassinate Khalilzad, and they came to Afghanistan specifically for this operation,” said one of the officials.
A State Department official confirmed the assassination attempt had been thwarted but gave no details. He also said several plots against Khalilzad, Karzai and other senior officials have been foiled, but didn’t elaborate.
In Kabul, US Embassy spokesman Lou Fintor declined to comment on the arrests, referring all questions to Afghan authorities.
News of the plot comes after three months of unprecedented bloodshed across the south and east.
At least 280 rebels and 29 US troops have been killed since March.
Today, fighting between Taliban rebels 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, not winding down, as the nation gears up for September parliamentary elections. Khalilzad himself warned on Thursday that the vote would be a likely target of insurgents.