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Leading Pashtun Says 'Plotters' Innocent

Pashtun chief challenges the interim administration over arrest of alleged coup plotters.
By Farzad Ahmedi

A leading Pashtun figure has raised the political temperature in Kabul by claiming that many of the men arrested in connection with an alleged plot against the interim administration are innocent.

Wahidullah Sabawon is a veteran of the Pashtun-dominated Islamist Hezb-e-Islami party, 160 of whose members were detained on April 3 in Kabul on suspicion of plotting to overthrow the Kabul authority.

In an IWPR interview this week, Sabawon, who had put up many of the detainees in his home, rejected allegations that he allowed forces under exiled Hezb-e-Islami leader Gulbuddin Hekmatyar's command to plot terrorism under his roof.

The Hezb-e-Islami is the sworn foe of the Tajik-dominated Jamiat-e-Islami, whose members hold top position in the government's defence and security departments. The raids have been widely perceived as an attempt by the latter to cow majority Pashtun political forces ahead of June's Loya Jirga, which will appoint a new government.

Hekmatyar has denounced the Bonn agreement - which created the interim administration - and the United States military deployment in Afghanistan, from his former refuge in Iran. Sabawon, in contrast, says he supports both the peace process and the presence of western troops. "The people arrested were under my leadership and have no connection with Hekmatyar," he told IWPR.

Interim administration sources have said they tend to accept Sabawon's protestations of innocence.

However, interior ministry official General Deen Mohammad Jurat said police raided his home after seeing a number of suspicious people come and go over a two-month period. "Eventually, we had to act to arrest a group of (terrorist) suspects from Pakistan and the frontier areas," he said.

Jurat said the men had links to the ousted Taleban regime, Osama Bin Laden's al-Qaeda network and Pakistani terror groups; and that explosives, radio-controlled detonators and bags of US dollars had been seized by police.

Interior minister Mohd Younus Qanuni told IWPR that the arrested men "had a wide-ranging plan" to overthrow Kabul into turmoil. "The question is what was the target and how much of a part did Sabawon have in what was going on," he said.

Qanuni believes that Hekmatyar is now hiding in Zerkoh in the western Afghan province of Heart, plotting against the interim authorities.

Jurat says he is willing to concede that Sabawon "might not have been aware of the plans of the people arrested in his home" but documents found on some of those detained "showed that they planned to kill interim president Hamid Karzai and King Zaher Shah on his return to Kabul".

Sabawon himself acknowledges that some of the detainees who were not members of the Hezb-e-Islami might have been involved in some kind of plot, and says "in that case the interim government should bring them to justice".

Sabawon rose to prominence as an advisor and spokesperson for Hekmatyar, serving as finance minister in 1995 and subsequently as prime minister under President Burhanuddin Rabbani.

When the Pashtun-dominated Taleban took over the country in 1996, he joined the mainly Tajik-dominated Northern Alliance resistance, but there proved to be no place for him in Karzai's interim cabinet when the regime fell.

He declined the consolation offer of directorship of the Afghan Red Cross and took up a place on the political sidelines where by all accounts he remained generally supportive of the interim authority.

A fortnight after the alleged coup attempt, Sabawon's house remains under surveillance, although this hasn't stopped a stream of people - friends, relatives and journalists - from visiting him.

"I do not feel like I am being watched," he told IWPR, though anxiety remains visible on his face.

If the overall intention of the mass arrests was to raise the pressure on Pashtun political forces like Hezb-e-Islami - one of the more organised movements seeking to check Tajik political ambitions - it may well have succeeded, say observers.

The sweep was widely reported to have involved the interrogation of several well-known Pashtun political figures, although claims that they were actually arrested were later denied.

Among those reported to have been quizzed was Hekmatyar's deputy, Jumma Khan Hamdard, who went on record in March to say the Hezb-e-Islami in Afghanistan would cooperate with the interim government.

The security forces have said there will be no let up in the surveillance of Sabawon or his fellow party members. "Investigations are not finished. If evidence suggesting Sabawon's direct involvement is turned up then he himself may yet be arrested, " said one source.

Farzad Ahmedi is a freelance journalist in Kabul.

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