KABUL (Reuters) - Afghans gathered to mourn assassinated former president and chief peace negotiator Burhanuddin Rabbani on Wednesday, World Peace Day, as fears mounted that his death could deepen ethnic divisions and nudge the country toward civil war.
Rabbani, perhaps the most prominent Afghan to be killed since the fall of the Taliban in 2001, died at his home on Tuesday when an insurgent he was due to hold talks with detonated explosives concealed in a turban.
The killing was widely seen as a strong statement of Taliban opposition to peace talks and the latest in a string of high-profile assassinations to shake the confidence of ordinary Afghans that security can be maintained as foreign forces withdraw.
The Taliban on Wednesday issued a statement saying the group was not prepared to comment on Rabbani’s assassination, and rejecting Reuters reports that the group had claimed responsibility.
Rabbani was Afghanistan’s most influential ethnic Tajik and his killing is likely to exacerbate ethnic divides, which could do more to damage peace efforts than the loss of a negotiator whose achievements were limited during his 11 months in charge.
“Our enemies must know that, with our Mujahideen, the soldiers of our martyred leader, we will take revenge on the bloodthirsty predators,” said Atta Mohammad Noor, governor of northern Balkh province and a former Mujahideen commander loyal to Rabbani.
“Be sure that for every drop of his blood, thousands of soldiers and brave men will rise up and come to the battlefield against you,” he said in a video message from Mazar-i-Sharif.
Several thousand people rallied in Faizabad, the capital of Rabbani’s native Badakhshan province, and threatened revenge if the government failed to tackle the insurgents.
The crowd chanted “death to Pakistan, death to ISI,” referring to the powerful spy agency, the Directorate of Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), which they blamed for Rabbani’s killing.
Many Afghans accuse Islamabad and the ISI of decades of interference in Afghan politics. Pakistan bristles at such comments and Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Tehmina Janjua said Rabbani’s death was a “huge loss for the process of reconciliation.”
Hundreds gathered on Wednesday on the blocked-off street around Rabbani’s home and armored cars with blacked-out windows carried senior officials, friends and other prominent Afghans to a memorial service inside.
World Peace Day activities planned for across the capital, including a concert for women by famous Afghan singer Farhad Darya, were canceled.
Rabbani’s inner circle have chosen Wazir Akbar Khan hilltop overlooking Kabul’s diplomatic enclave to bury the man who made his name as a fiery lecturer and activist and then became an anti-Soviet fighter, before briefly heading the country after the fall of the Soviet-backed regime.
The area came under attack a week earlier when insurgents holed up in a high-rise fired rockets and gunfire toward the U.S. Embassy and the headquarters of the NATO-led coalition and battled foreign and Afghan forces for 20 hours.
Several of Rabbani’s aides said the bomber had been escorted through layers of security without checks, because of promises he brought a message from the Taliban leadership.
“He was told there would be an important message, but this is the message he got,” former foreign minister Abdullah Abdullah, a protege of Rabbani, told Reuters.
“He made great efforts to see if there was any chance to make peace but the murderous Taliban group...(they) sent the worst signal.”
Waqif Hakimi, a spokesman for Jamiat Islami Afghanistan, Rabbani’s political party, said President Hamid Karzai had instructed Rabbani to meet the Taliban representative.
However, Hamed Elmi, a spokesman for Karzai, said the president was not involved.
Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid who claimed responsibility for the assassination in a telephone call with a reporter in Pakistan repeated his claim on Wednesday, but corrected some details of his earlier account, including the names of the assassins.
Spokesman Mujahid was reached on a phone number he has used previously, and his voice sounded the same as in previous conversations with the same reporter.
Kabul University students gathered on a street draped with black banners close to Rabbani’s home and carried signs venting anger at the government, which they blamed for his death.
“The situation will further deteriorate because of the killings of our leaders,” said Mujeed, a 21-year-old student of political law, from Rabbani’s home province of Badakhshan.
“We have no choice but to arm ourselves and defend the country. This is a plot hatched by the government to get rid of Rabbani, because he was exposing the fact that the government wanted the Taliban to come back.”
Ahmad Wali Masoud, a prominent politician and brother of the late resistance hero Ahmad Shah Massoud, said Rabbani’s death was a catastrophe that could change Afghanistan’s political landscape.
“Since he could not do it, I‘m sure no one else can make peace with the Taliban,” he told reporters. “Some people believed he could do something, but now with his death, the (hope of) peace is dead as well.”
Writing and additional reporting by Martin Petty; Additional reporting by Michael Georgy and Zeeshan Haider in Islamabad, Bashir Ansari in Mazar-i-Sharif and Qasim Nasrullahi in Faizabad; Editing by John Chalmers