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Thousands of Afghans Mark Assassination

September 9, 2003

KABUL, Afghanistan (AP)_ Even after two years, Massood Khalili recalls the ``frozen″ grins of the two Middle Eastern assassins _ posing as journalists _ as they prepared their explosive-laden camera to interview Ahmed Shah Masood, the head of the northern alliance and the Taliban government’s No. 1 enemy.

It was Sept. 9, 2001 _ two days before the terror attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon _ but what many believe was the first salvo in the al-Qaida strike that was about to be fired half way around the world.

The fake reporters asked Massood their first question and Khalili, Massood’s close friend and the northern alliance’s ambassador to India, leaned forward to translate.

``I didn’t even manage to utter the first word ... I saw this huge white and blue ball of fire engulfing us,″ Khalili recalled this week in an interview with The Associated Press at his Kabul home.

In a split second the explosives went off, mortally wounding Massood and crippling Khalili. The assassins also died.

On Tuesday, Afghans marked the death of the man known as the ``Lion of Panjshir.″ More than 15,000 people packed Kabul’s sports stadium, and thousands of others made a pilgrimage to the dead leader’s grave.

At Massood’s grave near his hometown in the Panjshir Valley about 90 miles north of Kabul, thousands came to sit on a hill before a domed mausoleum erected in his memory, reciting versus from the Quran, Islam’s holy book.

``Death to terrorism! Death to Osama bin Laden!″ chanted about 100 young students.

``Today, the entire Afghan nation is sad,″ said Fakhuddin, 35, a government employee who like many Afghans goes by only one name. ``It is a black day. Every Afghan is sad because Masood is not among us today.″

In the capital, flags were lowered to half-staff and Massood’s posters were on every corner and every shop. Black flags were raised throughout the city as the traditional sign of mourning.

Inside the stadium, a choir of children sang patriotic songs and hundreds of soldiers _ members of the fledgling Afghan national army _ spread out across the field.

A podium _ draped in black _ was set up and several leaders, including Afghan President Hamid Karzai, spoke before larger-than-life posters of Massood.

``The peace and prosperity in our country is the fruit of Massood’s martyrdom,″ Karzai told the crowd. ``He was my brother and my friend. I’m sure that his name will be written in Afghan history.″

Added Defense Minister Mohammed Fahim, who assumed the legacy of Massood’s anti-Taliban resistance:

``We will never let the Taliban and terrorists return to our country.″

Fahim, whose powerful private militia is considered a hindrance to establishment of a viable national army, called for unity and international help.

``Without national unity, we cannot continue to follow Massood’s path,″ he said. ``We need cooperation from the international community, and only after that will Afghanistan stand on its own two feet.″

Security was extremely tight, with fears that the Taliban _ reduced to a rebel force after being ousted by U.S.-led bombing following the Sept. 11 attack _ might target the event.

Snipers took up positions on the nearby rooftops and police, soldiers and private American security agents were ubiquitous.

The attack on Massood, allegedly carried out by Osama bin Laden’s al-Qaida terror network, was believed to have been carefully timed to take out the main opposition leader just before the attacks on the United States. Many believe bin Laden anticipated a retaliation from Washington, and wanted to make sure the main opponent of his Taliban hosts was out of the picture when it came.

Since his death, Massood has become something of a cult figure in many parts of Afghanistan, and a heroic version of his life has been promoted by his followers in the predominantly Tajik northern alliance, which dominates the current Afghan government.

The anniversary Tuesday was a clear display of their political might, and many of the more unsavory parts of Massood’s past have been glossed over.

In the early 1990s, Massood led one of many factions in battles that completely obliterated large parts of the capital. In the devastated western part of the city, Massood’s troops killed scores of minority Hazara.

After the Taliban seized power in 1996, Massood and the other factions were forced to flee. He became defense minister of the northern alliance and spent the last five years of his life fighting the Taliban from a tiny stronghold in northeastern Afghanistan.

Massood tried to rally international support, but little came until his death and the Sept. 11 terror attacks. Only then, backed by the U.S. bombers, did Massood’s army retake Kabul.

Khalili says the day of the assassination is still etched in his memory.

``I still dream about that, and in my dreams I can still see my commander,″ he said.

____

EDITOR’S NOTE: Correspondent Amir Shah in the Panjshir Valley contributed to this report.

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