KANDAHAR, Afghanistan – A former inmate at the U.S. prison camp at Guantanamo Bay (search), Cuba, who returned to Afghanistan to rejoin the Taliban as a key commander, was killed along with two fellow fighters in a raid by Afghan security forces, two senior officials said Sunday.
Interim President Hamid Karzai (search), meanwhile, made a visit — under heavy security — to a northern warlord whose influence could swing the Oct. 9 presidential election, which the Taliban and their anti-government allies threaten to disrupt.
The Taliban commander, Maulvi Abdul Ghaffar (search), died along with two comrades in a gunbattle Saturday night in Uruzgan, a southern province, said Gov. Jan Mohammed Khan.
He said authorities had received intelligence that Ghaffar was hiding in a village called Pishi and was planning an attack against the government. Security forces launched the raid after surrounding the house where the militants were hiding. No Afghan forces were reported hurt.
The governor said Ghaffar had been a senior Taliban (search) commander in northern Afghanistan and was arrested about two months after a U.S.-led coalition drove the militia from power in late 2001. He was held for eight months at Guantanamo Bay before his release and return to Afghanistan.
Khan and Afghan Interior Minister Ali Ahmad Jalali Khan said Ghaffar was then appointed leader of Taliban fighters in Uruzgan, a rugged region believed to be a stronghold of the hardline Islamic militia.
U.S. military officials said they could not immediately confirm Ghaffar had once been in U.S. custody.
Taliban-led insurgents are active in much of southern and eastern Afghanistan and frequently launch attacks on the U.S.-backed government despite the deployment of thousands of U.S. forces to hunt them down.
Officials are predicting an upsurge in violence before historic presidential elections on Oct. 9.
On Saturday, suspected Taliban rebels attacked a convoy of coalition and Afghan forces in Uruzgan who were patrolling to increase security ahead of the election and killed a district chief, Khan said.
The rebels opened fire on a vehicle carrying Char Cheno district chief Wali Jan, killing him and seriously injuring two Afghan soldiers in the Yakhdan area, he said. The rebels fled into surrounding mountains after the attack.
No coalition forces were hurt, Khan said.
Maj. Mark McCann, a U.S. military spokesman in Kabul, confirmed the attack on the convoy near Deh Rawood — a town in Uruzgan where there is a small U.S. base — in which one district official was killed and three other Afghans wounded, but had no details on the identity of the official.
The violence has also targeted U.S.-backed interim leader Karzai, who escaped a rocket attack on a U.S. military helicopter taking him to a southeastern city on Sept. 16.
Making his first provincial trip since, Karzai on Sunday joined Abdul Rashid Dostum, a northern strongman who is also one of the 18 candidates to become the country's first directly elected president.
Dozens of Afghan troops and Karzai's American bodyguards ringed the patch of parched steppe in Jawzjan province where Karzai and the ethnic Uzbek leader inaugurated a U.S.-funded road project.
Karzai is widely expected to win the election. But it is unclear if he can secure the majority needed to avoid a run-off — fueling speculation that his team is pressuring rivals to drop out and join him.
Dostum, a ruthless former communist military commander and political survivor who exercises tight control of the northwest, has in the past sought a top Defense Ministry position.
Karzai joked after Sunday's ceremony that: "I expected the general to say he would withdraw his candidacy, but he didn't."
Dostum said his campaign would continue with a rally that would draw "thousands" in Sheberghan, the capital of Jawzjan, on Tuesday, and another in Kabul next week.
"Right now, my decision is to continue," he said.