KABUL, Afghanistan – Afghanistan's foreign minister said Wednesday the country's aviation minister was killed by an angry mob, not senior government conspirators as interim Prime Minister Hamid Karzai has claimed.
The Afghan education minister, however, subsequently supported the Karzai claim, showing further the conflict at the upper levels of the interim government.
Foreign Minister Dr. Abdullah said that police had questioned dozens of witnesses and now believe that Civil Aviation and Tourism Minister Abdul Rahman was killed last week at Kabul airport by Islamic pilgrims enraged that their flights to Saudi Arabia had been delayed.
Abdullah said the whole government now shares this view, although there was no comment on this from Karzai.
Karzai blamed the killing on a feud among members of his own government although witnesses earlier said the minister was killed by irate pilgrims.
"It was not a premeditated plot," said Abdullah, speaking at a press conference in the Afghan capital of Kabul.
The foreign minister's public dismissal of the prime minister's initial claims raises further questions about the cohesion of the interim administration as Afghanistan struggles to restore order and unity after decades of warfare.
Karzai had named three senior members of the administration as suspects in the slaying and has demanded their extradition from Saudi Arabia.
Education Minister Rassoul Amin said he fully supported Karzai's earlier view.
"What Mr. Karzai said was right," Amin told The Associated Press. "Some people wanted to take their revenge against the minister. This was not the hajjis (pilgrims)."
Another minister said he questioned whether there could be a fair investigation of a murder that has become so politically charged. That minister spoke only on condition that he was not identified.
Although Abdullah dismissed the conspiracy theory put forth by Karzai, he said the three men remain suspects and said the pilgrims' anger may have been stirred up.
"There might have been people who provoked the hajjis (pilgrims)," he said. "They might be responsible"
When asked about the three suspects, Abdullah said that the view that the pilgrims killed the minister "does not suggest that those suspects could not be assassins."
When asked whether Karzai and other ministers still believe that the murder was a conspiracy, Abdullah said: "None of us in the government believes that."
Two Cabinet members appointed by Karzai — Mir Wais Sadeq, the minister of labor and social affairs, and Abdul Khaliq Fazal, the minister of public works — opened an investigation Wednesday into the Rahman's killing.
"We are investigating all the matter to find out how the incident took place, who was involved in the assassination and who was behind it," Fazal told The Associated Press on Wednesday.
Fazal said Attorney General Mullawi Shinwari's office will interrogate suspects. But he added that he and Sadeq will supervise the investigation.
The naming of such senior officials to investigate the death shows the sensitivity of a case that has laid bare deep divisions within the government.
Several of those wanted in the killing are senior members of Jamiat-e-Islami, the dominant faction of the northern alliance — a coalition of rebel groups that drove the Taliban from power last year.
Rahman abandoned Jamiat-e-Islami after an internal dispute.
Police are also investigating the death. But the police force is dominated by members of Jamiat-e-Islami. The faction, led by Burhanuddin Rabbani, an ethnic Tajik who once served as president, is largely made up of tribesmen from the Panjshir Valley north of Kabul.
Neither Sadeq nor Fazal are from the Panjshir Valley — apparently reflecting concerns that the police might be influenced by their ethnic and political affiliations.
The interim administration also is dominated by Jamiat-e-Islami, whose members head the defense, foreign and interior ministries. The three ministers also are from the Panjshir Valley.
There has been speculation that Rahman's killing may be linked to a rift between Jamiat-e-Islami loyalists within the Karzai administration and those loyal to exiled King Mohammad Zaher Shah, who lives in Rome.
That rift can also be characterized as one between northern alliance members who stayed in Afghanistan to fight the Taliban and exiled Afghans who have returned to their homeland after being recruited for the interim government.
The latter category includes Karzai, who is considered a supporter of a role for the exiled king in bringing Afghanistan's disparate groups together.
According to an agreement hammered out during a U.N.-sponsored meeting of Afghans in Germany, Karzai's interim government will rule until June 22. After that, a grand council, or loya jirga, representing Afghanistan's different ethnic groups will be established ahead of national elections set for 2003.
Karzai has demanded the extradition from Saudi Arabia of three senior government officials in connection with Rahman's death.
They are Gen. Abdullah Jan Tawhidi, the deputy intelligence chief; Gen. Kalandar Beg, deputy of the technical office of the Defense Ministry; and a Justice Ministry official identified only as Halim.
Karzai has said that two of the men are in Saudi custody but has not identified which two. Beg and Tawhidi are both from the Panjshir Valley.
Fazal, however, said he was informed Wednesday that there were no suspects in Saudi custody.
"One day we are told 2 people are arrested, another day we are told the opposite," he said. "We will investigate this matter."