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Afghan Defense Minister Escapes Bomb Explosion - 2002-04-08

Four people were killed and more than a dozen injured Monday in the eastern Afghan city of Jalalabad, when a bomb exploded near a car carrying the interim government's defense minister. The bombing follows government accusations of a plot to attack administration leaders.

The bomb exploded in front of Afghan Defense Minister Mohammed Fahim's convoy, as it traveled down Jalalabad's main road. The minister's vehicle was not hit. But witnesses say the blast killed and injured bystanders lined up along the road to greet Mr. Fahim.

The minister was on his way to meet local commanders and tribal leaders. Among the issues he planned to discuss was the interim government's campaign to eradicate poppy farming. The eradication campaign, which officially began Monday, is unpopular in many poppy-growing areas of Afghanistan, including Jalalabad.

Defense Ministry officials describe the bomb attack as an attempt to destabilize the country by opponents of the current government.

Last Thursday, Afghan authorities in Kabul arrested hundreds of people in connection with an alleged plot to attack interim government chairman Hamid Karzai and other government leaders, as well as exiled former King Mohammed Zahir Shah, who is expected to return to Afghanistan later this month. 160 people remain in custody, many allegedly with ties to the militant Islamic party, Hezb-e-Islami, headed by former Afghan prime minister Gulbuddin Hekmatyar. Mr. Hekmatyar, a vocal opponent of the Karzai administration, denies any involvement in the alleged plot.

Meanwhile, members of the 4,800-member multi-national peacekeeping force in Kabul are on edge, following a rocket attack on one of its compounds Sunday morning. The International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) says two Chinese-made rockets were fired in the direction of the compound. But they missed the compound and failed to detonate. Police in Kabul subsequently discovered four more rockets at the launch site, all connected to a crude timing device. Three of the rockets were said to be armed and ready to launch.

Despite the threats against them, ISAF spokesman Neal Peckham says the soldiers will carry on with their mission.

"We've always realized from the first day on the ground here that this is a risk operation, and indeed we wouldn't be here, if there was not a risk to be managed," he said. "That's what we will continue to do, we'll be out there, doing our job, meeting our mandate and managing the day-to-day risk."

Colonel Peckham says initial investigations have linked the latest attack directed at peacekeepers to groups wishing to destabilize the capital ahead of June's loya jirga, the grand council meeting convening to select a new government.