KABUL, Afghanistan – Interim leader Hamid Karzai said Friday that a conspiracy involving six government officials was behind the killing of the country's aviation and tourism minister, Abduk Rahman.
The officials include generals and members of the intelligence service and the justice ministry, said Karzai's information minister, Abdul Rahim Makhdoom. Karzai said the men were motivated by a long-standing feud with Rahman.
Three of the accused have been arrested, one of whom was identified only as Abdul Rehim. The others are being sought in Saudi Arabia.
"He was killed by people who planned it," Karzai told reporters. "We are asking the Saudis to arrest them and bring them back. ... We will try them. We will put them behind bars."
Thousands of mourners crowded a muddy Kabul cemetery for Rahman's burial Saturday. Karzai offered prayers that Afghanistan would be delivered from "the culture of the knife and the gun."
Karzai's allegations of a conspiracy contradict accounts from some government and Afghan airline officials, which suggested that Muslim pilgrims on the way to Mecca were responsible for the minister's death. After Rahman arrived at the airport for Thursday afternoon for his flight to New Delhi, the officials said, hundreds of pilgrims, frustrated by travel delays, blocked his plane and sparked a standoff that lasted roughly five hours.
The mob raided the aircraft when Rahman emerged to try to talk to the crowd, said Abdul Wahab Nuristani, the deputy chief of a military division in eastern Afghanistan. Rahman was seized and beaten before his body was thrown to the tarmac below, he said, citing witness accounts.
But Karzai said the attack "has nothing to do with hajjis" or those making the pilgrimage.
It was unclear whether he was suggesting that the officials incited the mob or that the pilgrims gave cover to a deliberate attack.
The information minister said three of the suspects were believed to have left on flights for Saudi Arabia along with pilgrims traveling there: Gen. Abdullah Jan Tawhidi, the deputy intelligence chief; Gen. Kalandar Beg, deputy of the technical office of the defense ministry; and an official of the Justice Ministry for whom only one name was given, Halim.
Karzai suggested that the killing was linked to a blood feud dating back to the struggle against the Taliban. All the five he named were part of a faction of the northern alliance with which Rahman had broken.
"All this ... goes back to the days of the resistance," Karzai said, without giving any details. "We are trying to do justice."
Dozens of friends, family and government officials convened at Rahman's Kabul home as news spread of his death. The mourners listened quietly as a mullah recited passages from the Koran.
Rahman, 49, was trained as a medical doctor. He left Afghanistan when the Taliban gained power and had been living in New Delhi. Since taking over as aviation and tourism minister in the interim government, he had spoken enthusiastically in interviews of his wish to draw tourists to Afghanistan.
Despite the killing, two pilgrimage flights left the airport at 2 a.m. and another was to depart later Friday, airport officials said, speaking on condition of anonymity.
Several pilgrims were also hurt during a clash with Rahman's bodyguards at the airport Thursday. Also beaten in the fray were about 10 members of the staff of Afghanistan's Ariana airlines, including its president, according to an Ariana employee speaking on condition of anonymity. The employee, who was in the airport as tensions escalated Thursday, said would-be pilgrims grew angrier and angrier as delays dragged on while they waited in the freezing terminal.
About 1,400 people held bookings and tickets for what were to have been two flights during the day, but neither had taken off by late afternoon, the staffer said.
A contingent of British and French peacekeepers, stationed a quarter-mile away in the military part of the airport, were apparently unaware that the situation had flared out of control. Earlier, they had sent food and blankets for the growing crowd.
The security force "knew there was an ongoing incident, but it happened very quickly," said British Capt. Graham Dunlop, a spokesman for the peacekeepers. He said the civilian area of the airport was under the control of Afghan authorities.
"We were not involved," he said. "It's not our jurisdiction."
Mohammed Anif, a Kabul man who was waiting to see off his father on the pilgrimage, saw the angry mob rush the plane after a rumor ran through the crowd that it was about to take off.
"They went running up the steps and inside the plane, and we saw struggles and a body thrown out of the plane," he said. He said he could not tell from a distance if it was Rahman's.
The hajj to Mecca – home of Islam's holiest shrine – is one of the pillars of Islam. Muslims who are able-bodied and can afford the journey are obliged to do it at least once in their lifetime.
Since the fall of the Taliban, factional fighting has persisted in pockets of Afghanistan's countryside, but this is the most serious violence yet in the capital since the interim government of Hamid Karzai took over Dec. 22.
Kabul is patrolled by an international peacekeeping force that numbers about 3,200 troops thus far. Karzai has repeatedly appealed for an enlarging of the force and an expansion of its deployment outside of Kabul.
Rahman's funeral was to be held Saturday in Kabul.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.