Hundreds arrested in apparent plot

KABUL, Afghanistan -- Afghan authorities said Thursday they have uncovered a plot against the fledgling government, arresting hundreds for allegedly planning "terrorism, abductions and sabotage," and seizing weapons and documents in sweeps throughout the capital.

The government said the operations against men linked to former Prime Minister Gulbuddin Hekmatyar thwarted the greatest threat yet to Hamid Karzai's interim administration.

But the arrests are also likely to inflame tension between Hekmatyar's largely Pashtun followers and the northern alliance, which is dominated by ethnic Tajiks and controls key ministries.

"They wanted to launch a coup d'etat against the government," said Mohammed Naseer, security director at the Kabul governor's office. He said the plotters also wanted to disrupt the loya jirga, a political gathering planned for June to select a new government.

Interior Minister Yunus Qanooni said most of those arrested were members of Hekmatyar's Hezb-e-Islami party.

Plans for terrorism

Whether the suspects actually hoped to overthrow the government was under investigation, he said, but "it was a plot including terrorism, abductions and sabotage."

He said authorities had seized explosives and remote control devices and found "written documents indicating that they would carry out these acts." He did not elaborate.

"There were a series of attacks planned against a number of prominent Afghan individuals, including Chairman Karzai and the former king," Mohammad Zaher Shah, who is due to return to Afghanistan from Italy this month, Qanooni said. He added that authorities had evidence the men planned to attack foreigners.

In Pakistan, a senior leader of Hezb-e-Islami, Qutbuddin Hilal, said those arrested were former -- not current -- members of the group.

Pashtun leaders may interpret the arrests as an attempt to stifle their moves toward Pashtun unity in advance of the loya jirga, but Qanooni said nobody was arrested "on the basis of political disagreement."

When asked if the majority of those arrested were Pashtuns, Qanooni said only: "Let's not turn it into an ethnic issue."

Qanooni said more than 300 people had been arrested, and that 160 were still being held Thursday. A Western official in Kabul, speaking on condition of anonymity, said only 10 were being held on suspicion of serious offenses, including terrorism.

Lt. Col. Neal Peckham, spokesman for the international peacekeeping force, said weapons had been found and that those arrested also included Pakistani members of another militant group, the Jamaat-e-Islami, a Pakistan Islamic organization with close ties to Hekmatyar. He said the peacekeepers were not involved in the operations, but had been tipped off beforehand.

Afghan police on Monday raided the home of Hekmatyar's one-time aide, Wahidullah Sabaoon, but there was confusion Thursday over his whereabouts. Jurat and Naseer said Sabaoon was among those arrested in the sweep, but Peckham said he was still at large.