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Afghan provincial governor is killed

Special to The Times

In a stark demonstration of insurgents’ growing strength on the doorstep of the capital, assailants Saturday assassinated the governor of Lowgar province.

The Taliban claimed responsibility for the attack that killed Abdullah Wardak, a longtime foe of the austere fundamentalist Muslim movement that ruled Pakistan until late 2001 when it was toppled by a U.S.-led invasion.

The killing of Wardak was highly symbolic -- not only as the settling of long-held grudges by Islamic militants, but as a brazen show of the insurgency’s strength in an area barely half an hour’s drive from the capital, Kabul.

Only last month, the governor had delivered news to journalists of the killing of three Western aid workers, along with their Afghan driver, in his province. The women, one of them American, were gunned down, their vehicle riddled with hundreds of bullets, as they were returning to Kabul from a short trip.

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Until then, Lowgar province, just south of the capital, had been regarded as relatively safe not only for foreign aid workers but for government officials such as Wardak, a former Cabinet minister under President Hamid Karzai.

Wardak had become uneasy in recent weeks, a member of his entourage said, upon hearing of persistent and escalating death threats by the Taliban. He usually shrugged them off.

Official accounts differed in the hours after the attack early Saturday. Some said the massive explosion that killed the governor and two bodyguards was a suicide bombing; others said it was triggered by remote control.

A senior police officer in Kabul, Ali Shah Paktiawal, told Reuters news agency that the attackers were lying in wait when Wardak left his residence.

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Wardak had fought the Taliban, commanding a militia that had helped in overthrowing the movement. In their newly emboldened insurgency, Taliban fighters often target officials considered friendly to either the United States or the U.S.-backed government in Kabul.

Strikes close to the capital have helped to give at least the impression of encirclement.

Lowgar province’s main airport was forced to close Friday after a rocket attack, but reopened a short time later, officials said.

Across the border in Pakistan, government forces have killed scores of militants in recent days, military officials have said. But in a sign of militants’ growing boldness, a municipal building in Peshawar, the main city in Pakistan’s restive northwest, reportedly was seized briefly by insurgents.

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Pakistan has been roiled by a series of American strikes on its soil, including half a dozen airstrikes by what are believed to have been Predator drone aircraft and a ground raid Sept. 3 by U.S. special forces.

In both Afghanistan and Pakistan, strikes targeting local people suspected of aiding Western forces have become more severe.

Afghan officials said militants in Ghazni province, between the capital and the main southern city of Kandahar, were believed to have beheaded three men Friday, accusing them of being in league with the Karzai government.

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laura.king@latimes.com

Special correspondent Faiez reported from Kabul and staff writer King from Ankara, Turkey.


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