(For full coverage on Afghanistan, double click on [ID:nAFPAK])
* Karzai’s running mate unharmed in Taliban ambush
* Second attack on an election candidate in four days
(Adds details of attack, background, paragraphs 5, 15-18)
By Wahdat Afghan
KUNDUZ, Afghanistan, July 26 (Reuters) - One of Afghan President Hamid Karzai’s vice presidential running mates in next month’s elections escaped unhurt from an ambush by Taliban insurgents on Sunday, officials said.
Mohammad Qasim Fahim, the former head of an alliance that toppled the Taliban in 2001, was ambushed on a road in northern Kunduz province where he was campaigning on Karzai’s behalf for the Aug. 20 poll, said senior campaign official Zalmai Mujadidi.
Kunduz governor Mohammad Omar said Fahim was travelling by road to the adjacent Takhar province on Sunday afternoon when his convoy was attacked by insurgents.
"Fahim is alive and fine," Omar told Reuters in Kunduz, adding that one of Fahim’s bodyguards had been wounded.
Kunduz security official Commander Abdulrazak Yaqubi said an unknown number of insurgents used automatic rifles and rocket-propelled grenades in the attack. Some of the insurgents were killed in a counter-attack by security forces, he said.
Fahim, an ethnic Tajik and once a leading opposition figure, was nominated by Karzai as one of two vice presidential running mates in May as Karzai sought to solidify fragmenting support by drawing former opponents into his re-election campaign.
It was the second attack on a candidate in less than a week.
On Wednesday, Mullah Salam Rocketi, a former Taliban commander and now one of 38 candidates challenging Karzai, was also ambushed as he returned to Kabul after campaigning in northern Baghlan on Wednesday.
Rocketi — who took his name because of his liking for firing rocket-propelled grenades at occupying Soviet troops — was also unhurt. [ID:nISL494054]
The Taliban quickly claimed responsibility for the latest attack on Fahim, a former deputy leader and defence minister under Karzai.
"We killed four of Fahim’s bodyguards," Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid told Reuters by telephone from an undisclosed location.
International observers have identified poor security, especially in Taliban strongholds in the south, as one of the main stumbling blocks confronting the poll, Afghanistan’s second direct vote for president.
Attacks across the country have increased since thousands of U.S. Marines and British troops launched major operations in Helmand province in the south earlier this month.
Fahim survived another attempt on his life while he was campaigning in the eastern city of Jalalabad during the 2004 election campaign.
Karzai is a clear front-runner in the election despite appearing to fall out of favour at home and in some Western capitals earlier this year.
He has drawn criticism abroad for forming alliances with former warlords. Both Fahim and Karzai’s other running mate, ethnic Hazara Karim Khalili, once headed guerrilla groups.
Karzai was also widely criticised for failing to appear in a televised debate against his two main rivals — former cabinet ministers Abdullah Abdullah and Ashraf Ghani — on Thursday.
Abdullah on Sunday staged a rally attended by about 3,000 in Charikar, near the U.S. military’s sprawling Bagram airbase north of Kabul.