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World News

Afghan killing widens ethnic gaps, dims peace hopes

KABUL (Reuters) - As Afghans gathered for Friday’s burial of the country’s assassinated chief peace negotiator, fears mounted that the fallout from a killing that opened old ethnic wounds could go way beyond the derailment of a fledgling reconciliation process.

Former President Burhanuddin Rabbani was the most prominent surviving leader of the Northern Alliance, a group largely made up of ethnic Tajiks, shaped by the Afghanistan resistance against the Soviet Union and bitter civil war.

His killing came after a string of deaths of other key northerners, including powerful police chief General Dawood Dawood and Kunduz provincial governor Mohammad Omar.

As violence spirals -- civilian deaths are at record levels and the insurgency is spreading fast in once peaceful areas -- a growing number of Afghans fear the largely Pashtun Taliban are picking off potential leaders from other ethnic groups.

“(President Hamid) Karzai himself is a supporter of the Taliban and is trying to get rid of the Northern Alliance to bring them to power,” said 40-year-old Tajik taxi driver Mohammad Shah, from northern Takhar province, who had pasted a poster of Rabbani on his windshield.

“The Taliban will further expand their influence in the northern provinces by the killing of Rabbani... This will create more insecurity.”

Rabbani’s position as a strong Tajik supporter of Pashtun Karzai’s push to talk to the Taliban was highly symbolic -- and so was his killing.

It has amplified a volatile mix of anger and mistrust among ethnic Tajiks and other groups that in the past were targeted by the Taliban, and revived bitter memories of civil war.

It is this dangerous widening of ethnic fissures that is spreading gloom about the prospect of worsening violence in the wake of his death, more than the loss of a negotiator who after nearly a year could produce little firm evidence of progress.

WHO TO BLAME

The Taliban claimed responsibility for Rabbani’s killing to Reuters, but then in a statement denied that claim.

The confusion over who was behind the assassination -- treacherous even by the standards of a bitter war, as the assassin claimed to come with a message of peace -- has added to anger and fear.

Some blame the government, others the Taliban insurgents, while many are convinced Pakistan was plotting to drive a wedge between Afghans and scuttle Rabbani’s attempts to forge dialogue which might have left them sidelined.

“Anyone who works for peace and stability in this country is eliminated by the Taliban under the instruction of Pakistan,” said Fawad, a 27-year-old from the capital Kabul.

“Pakistan is our enemy and never wanted Afghanistan to live in peace because they want to bring back the Taliban,” he told Reuters, adding that vengeance would come.

Not everyone is mourning Rabbani. His appointment was divisive, largely because of his mujahideen past and his role in the bloody civil war that followed the fall of the Soviet-backed government and devastated Kabul.

“Professor Rabbani was part of all the problems that started with the civil war and the rise of the Taliban,” said Mohammad Edrees, a 50-year-old employee of a construction firm with a salt-and-pepper beard.

But even critics of the former fighter and lecturer fear the changes that his loss will bring.

“The jihad leaders themselves created enemies and now both us and them are paying the price for it,” Edrees said. “I’m not upset nor am I happy, but his killing will have a bad impact on peace and security, so we will all suffer.”

Writing by Martin Petty; Editing by Emma Graham-Harrison

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