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Hijackings May Be Linked to Attack on Anti-Taliban Chief

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TIMES SPECIAL CORRESPONDENT

European intelligence officials say they are investigating a possible link between the suicide hijack assaults in the United States and a suicide attack three days earlier aimed at the chief opposition leader to the Taliban government in Afghanistan.

Some analysts suspect that both the attack last weekend on Ahmed Shah Massoud in remote northeastern Afghanistan and the coordinated terrorist attacks in New York and Washington were the work of teams trained by Osama bin Laden.

Those officials suspect that Bin Laden’s forces might have sought to eliminate the strongest internal foe of a friendly Taliban government that has provided a haven for them.

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If true, it would be potentially powerful evidence of how intertwined the Afghan government and Bin Laden have become, and possibly bolster arguments that Kabul should bear responsibility for terrorist actions involving its resident fugitive.

Already the Taliban is known to be using Bin Laden’s terror training camps for its own military needs in combating Massoud’s Northern Alliance.

One European intelligence official who specializes in Islamic extremism said there have been discussions among agencies in several countries now examining whether the Massoud assassination plot “was Step 2 or Step 3” of a plan “to weaken the Northern Alliance in preparation for a potential U.S. retaliation” after the terrorist attacks on the United States.

One Western government source cautioned that many questions remain to be answered, but acknowledged that the timing represented a coincidence that will be examined.

Another intelligence source also said the Taliban might have been surprised by the terrorist attacks in the U.S., noting that there is some evidence of friction between Bin Laden and top Taliban officials since the assault.

Although some Western officials think Massoud died in a bomb blast, his followers and family members insist he is alive, though gravely wounded. Family members interviewed in Europe claim that Massoud was in a coma but has since regained consciousness.

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Two assassins posing as television journalists attacked Massoud, apparently with a booby-trapped camera. They are believed to be North Africans. Sources close to Massoud say they are Algerians or Moroccans.

The assassins traveled to Massoud’s hide-out at Khwaja Bahaouddin in mountainous northeast Afghanistan on Belgian passports from London via Pakistan. The passports had been stolen from Belgian consulates in The Hague and Strasbourg, according to a Belgian law enforcement official.

The assassins claimed to be preparing a television documentary on the last surviving leader of the Afghan opposition.

Times staff writer Jim Mann in Washington, D.C., contributed to this report.

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