Thousands mourn key Afghan leader

Wednesday, September 10, 2003

PANJSHIR VALLEY, Afghani-stan -- Thousands gathered Tuesday at a hilltop mausoleum to mark the anniversary of the assassination of Ahmed Shah Massood, the Northern Alliance leader whose death was seen as the first al-Qaida salvo in the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the United States.

In Kabul, Afghan President Hamid Karzai and other dignitaries joined about 15,000 people in a somber tribute at the heavily guarded sports stadium, praising the anti-Taliban fighter as a hero, a martyr and a brother.

Known as the "Lion of Panjshir," Massood fought against the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan in the 1980s and then led the northern-based forces that battled the Taliban in the late 1990s. The alliance swept to power in late 2001 -- after Massood's death -- following a U.S.-backed military campaign to topple the hardline Islamic regime that had sheltered Osama bin Laden and his al-Qaida network.

At the domed mausoleum, near his home village of Jangalak in the Panjshir Valley, about 90 miles north of Kabul, more than 2,000 people gathered to offer prayers and wreathes.

Among them were schoolgirls who had walked six miles to see the tomb. They carried banners that read, "Osama, you martyred our hero!" and "Death to Osama!"

Mohammed Suleman, an Islamic cleric, described the anniversary of Massood's death on Sept. 9, 2001, as a "black day."

"O, Massood you fought jihad against the Russians. You fought against the terrorists. You were a great warrior," he said, as verses of the Quran, Islam's holy book, were read over loudspeakers.

His speech made several old men cry. They brushed away tears with the edges of their turbans.

In the capital, flags were lowered to half-staff and Massood's posters were on every corner and in every shop. Drivers draped their cars with black cloth in a sign of mourning.

Inside the stadium -- where the Taliban used to carry out public executions -- a choir of children sang patriotic songs and hundreds of soldiers from the fledgling Afghan national army spread out across the field. An Afghan air force helicopter hovered overhead, dropping flowers.

Written in history

"The peace and prosperity in our country is the fruit of Massood's martyrdom," Karzai told the crowd. "He was my brother and my friend. I'm sure that his name will be written in Afghan history."

Security was extremely tight, with fears that the Taliban -- now reduced to a rebel force -- might target the event. Snipers took up positions on nearby rooftops. Bomb-sniffing dogs patrolled the area.

The attack on Massood, allegedly carried out by al-Qaida, was believed to have been carefully timed to take out the main opposition leader just before the attacks on the United States. Many believe bin Laden anticipated a retaliation from Washington, and wanted to make sure the main opponent of his Taliban hosts was out of the picture when it came.

Massood Khalili, a close friend who was acting as interpreter for the Northern Alliance leader in the moments before his death, recounted this week the "frozen grins" of the two Middle Eastern assassins -- posing as journalists -- as they prepared their explosive-laden camera to interview him.

The fake reporters asked Massood their first question and Khalili, the Northern Alliance's ambassador to India, leaned forward to translate.

"I didn't even manage to utter the first word ... I saw this huge white and blue ball of fire engulfing us," he told The Associated Press at his Kabul home.

In a split second the explosives went off, mortally wounding Massood and severely injuring Khalili, who was left with massive leg wounds and damage to one eye. The assassins also died.

Since his death, unsavory parts of Massood's past have been glossed over by the government, which is dominated by his Northern Alliance men.

In the early 1990s, Massood led one of many factions in battles that obliterated large parts of the capital. In the devastated western part of the city, Massood's troops killed scores of minority Hazara.

After the Taliban seized power in 1996, Massood and the other factions were forced to flee. He spent the last five years of his life fighting the Taliban from a tiny stronghold in northeastern Afghanistan.

Abdul Raouf, a teacher who traveled on Tuesday to the Panjshir Valley from Kabul, said that "Massood never abandoned Afghanistan. He was the only one who fought against Osama ... Massood was so strong, they had to kill him first and only then they attacked America."

Amina, an elderly woman, prayed in front of the tomb. "In my prayer I told him, 'Sleep now Lion, rest, relax,"' she said.

Associated Press reporter Aleksandar Vasovic in Kabul contributed to this report.

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