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Afghans Mark Anniversary of Rebel Leader's Assassination

The night before he died, the legendary Afghan commander Ahmed Shah Massood stayed up until 4 a.m. talking politics and poetry -- and of how he planned to outwit an impending Taliban offensive. 

Eight hours later, Massood was dead, fatally injured by suicide bombers believed sent by Usama bin Laden. Three months later, his troops were masters of the land -- thanks to the United States. 

On Monday, an Afghanistan controlled by Massood's lieutenants commemorated the anniversary of his assassination on Sept. 9, 2001 -- just two days before the devastating attacks that brought America into the Afghan war. 

Amid heavy security, several thousand people gathered at a mosque in northern Afghanistan's biggest city to mark the anniversary. Admirers in Mazar-e-Sharif carried portraits of the bearded fighter and wore T-shirts bearing his image. They praised him for fighting both the Soviet Red Army and the Taliban. 

"We'll never forget the black day that he died. It's written in the history of Afghanistan," said Zaher Wahdat, an ethnic Hazara leader. 

Only a few people were with Massood when two Arabs in casual Western clothes prepared to interview him at his headquarters in the northern town of Khodja Bahauddin that day. 

One of those trusted aides was Massood Khalili, a close friend who served as a political adviser for two decades. Khalili, interviewed by The Associated Press on Sunday, said Massood had agreed to be interviewed by the Arabs -- both of North African origin and traveling with false Belgian passports. 

Massood apologized for delaying them for several days, Khalili recalled. The northern alliance commander had been preoccupied with pondering how to block an expected attack by the Taliban and their Al Qaeda allies. 

"The whole night we were up talking until four o'clock," Khalili said of Massood's last night. "First about military things -- he was talking about the offensive. He was showing me on a map how they wanted to encircle us. Then we talked about political things, then we talked poetry." 

As the Arabs were preparing for the interview, Massood asked them about life in the 90 percent of the country under Taliban control. They told him that Afghans in Taliban areas "think you're not a good Muslim, that you are helped by infidels," Khalili recalled. 

Taken aback, Khalili asked the pair whom they worked for. 

One of them responded: "We are not journalists. We belong to Islamic centers based in Paris and London, Islamic centers all over the world."' Khalili said. Khalili leaned over and whispered into Massood's ear. 

"I told the commander very slowly and softly, 'They belong to the other side.' I thought they were very close to the Taliban. They were against us. But the commander said, 'Let them ask their questions. Maybe they want to know more about Afghanistan."' 

The Arab cameraman was eager to begin and started to ready his camera. But Massood stopped him, asking what questions they planned to ask. Khalili translated 15 questions -- half concerned bin Laden. 

Massood seemed annoyed but said nothing, simply lowering his chin toward his chest as he always did when something was bothering him, Khalili said. Massood then signaled for the interview to begin. 

The curly haired cameraman immediately moved a coffee table out of the way to move his tripod closer. Khalili joked that the Arab seemed more like a wrestler than a cameraman. The camera was black and large, with an oversized lens. 

"He put the camera down on the tripod, then took a few steps back," Khalili recalled. "I will always remember when I looked at him and said, 'Ready?' ... He had this really nasty smile." 

The interviewer, sitting just inches from Massood, asked his first question: "What is the situation in Afghanistan?" 

Khalili leaned toward Massood to translate. He had uttered only one word when the bomb -- possibly hidden inside the camera -- exploded. 

"I saw this thick blue fire rushing toward us. I thought maybe a rocket had been fired from outside. And then I realized. I pinpointed this man, that man. It clicked. And I felt the commander's very weak hand on my chest." 

Khalili saw body parts all over the room. The interviewer himself was blown in two. The cameraman survived the blast but was shot to death by Massood's bodyguards. Khalili said. 

Massood died 10 to 15 minutes after the attack, Khalili said. However, the northern alliance, fearing that Massood's death would spell the end of their resistance, claimed he was alive until a successor, current Defense Minister Mohammed Fahim, could be chosen. The alliance announced Massood died late on the morning of Sept. 15. 

"I remember my last glance (at Massood)," said Khalili, who was blinded in one eye and is still recovering from his painful injuries. "His hair was different. There was blood I think. His eyes were closed." 

As word of the bombing spread, Khalili said 10,000 to 15,000 Taliban fighters backed by Pakistani and Arab volunteers, launched the attack that Massood had expected. 

"It would have been difficult to resist for very long without Commander Massood," he said. "Maybe we would have lasted a month or two." 

In less than a month, however, American warplanes were flying over Afghanistan, pulverizing Taliban and Al Qaeda positions. U.S. and allied ground forces entered the country in pursuit of bin Laden and his followers. 

Massood's enemies crumbled, and the northern alliance rolled into Kabul and other cities. 

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