KABUL, Afghanistan — The front-runner for the Afghan presidency narrowly escaped assassination Friday when two bombs struck his convoy as it traveled between campaign events in the capital, Kabul, illustrating the country’s fragility as it prepares for its first democratic transfer of power.
The candidate, Abdullah Abdullah, was unharmed and vowed to press ahead with his campaign, saying at an election rally that “the aim of this incident was to create fear and anxiety among the people and prevent them from deciding their own destiny.”
But it was a close call for a man many in the West hope will guide Afghanistan through a difficult transition, provide a steadier hand than mercurial departing President Hamid Karzai and sign a security pact to allow about 10,000 U.S. troops to remain in the country for two additional years.
At least 10 people, including three in Abdullah’s entourage, were killed and dozens were wounded in the attack, which heavily damaged the front of his armored car, destroyed several vehicles and storefronts and left the street littered with twisted metal and other rubble.
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Although there was no immediate claim of responsibility, the bombings bore the hallmarks of Taliban militants who have vowed to disrupt the election as part of their fight against the Western-backed government. Karzai blamed the attack on “enemies of Afghanistan who don’t want free elections.”
The attack took place eight days before a runoff in which Afghans are to choose a new leader. The Taliban have staged a series of high-profile bombings this year, though the first round of voting April 5 was relatively peaceful.
The attempt on Abdullah’s life appeared to be the first attack targeting a candidate — as opposed to their offices and workers — since campaigning began this year.
The death of one candidate would have huge implications for Afghanistan’s stability and for the Obama administration’s hopes for a signed security agreement in time to prepare to keep a residual U.S. force of trainers and advisers in the country after 2014. Both candidates in the June 14 runoff say they will sign the pact, which Karzai has refused to do. The Afghan constitution says new elections must be held in the event of a candidate’s death.
Abdullah, a former Afghan foreign minister, was the runner-up in the disputed presidential elections of 2009 and hopes now to succeed Karzai, who is constitutionally barred from seeking a third term.
Abdullah is the leading contender in the runoff, facing former Finance Minister Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai. Abdullah garnered 45 percent of votes while Ahmadzai came in second with 31.6 percent.
Abdullah had just addressed a rally at a wedding hall and was heading toward a campaign event at the Intercontinental Hotel when his convoy was hit along a street in a commercial area of western Kabul. The attack took place about noon, when many Afghans were indoors for Friday prayers.
Interior Ministry spokesman Sediq Sediqqi said a suicide bombing was followed by a roadside bomb. But Gul Agha Hashim, Kabul’s criminal investigation chief, said the first blast was carried out by a suicide bomber on foot and the second by a suicide car bomber.
Health Minister Suraya Dalil said 10 people were killed and 37 wounded.
Abdullah’s election opponent, Ahmadzai, condemned the attack, adding: “Abdullah is my opponent, but I would not want any harm to come to him.”