Hundreds of 'Kabul plotters' arrested
KABUL, Afghanistan -- Hundreds of people linked to a hard-line Islamic group have been arrested in the Afghanistan capital of Kabul on charges of plotting to overthrow the country's fledging interim government.
In what could be the most serious threat to Prime Minister Hamid Karzai's leadership so far, Afghan security officials arrested 350 supporters of renegade warlord Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, and seized explosives, bombs and weapons.
The men are suspected of plotting terror attacks against the former Afghan king, the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in Kabul, as well as U.S. targets across Afghanistan.
Hekmatyar, who has spent five years in exile, is an ethnic Pashtun and the leader of Hizb-e-Islami, or the Islamic Party. He fled to Iran after the Taliban took the capital in 1996, but left Iran in February after authorities there threatened to expel him.
Hekmatyar is believed to be in Afghanistan's countryside, although authorities are not sure exactly where.
Many in Afghanistan hold him responsible for devastating rounds of shelling that rocked the Afghan capital between 1993 and 1994.
While Afghan officials referred to the suspected plot that led to the mass arrests announced on Thursday, they did not describe what evidence led them to carry out the sweeps.
But Gen. Din Muhammad Jurat, the director general for security at the Interior Ministry, told The Associated Press that the plot included plans to set off bombs throughout the capital.
"They wanted to launch a coup d'etat against the government," Mohammed Naseer, the security director at the Kabul governor's office, told AP.
The plotters also wanted to disrupt the loya jirga, a political gathering planned for June to select a new Afghan government, he added.
But the roundups could fuel tensions between Pashtuns, Afghanistan's largest ethnic group, and the Northern Alliance, which is dominated by ethnic Tajiks and which controls the interior and other key ministries.
Because Hekmatyar's following is largely Pashtun, Pashtun leaders may interpret the arrests as an attempt to stifle their moves toward Pashtun unity in advance of the loya jirga.
The peacekeepers were not involved in the operations, but had been tipped off beforehand, Lt. Col. Neal Peckham, a spokesman for the ISAF peacekeepers, told AP.
Some 600 people were rounded up in the raids, and 250 released, said another Western official in Kabul, speaking on condition of anonymity. Ten were being held on suspicion of serious offenses, including terrorism, the official said.
Hekmatyar has been a vocal opponent of Karzai and of U.S. presence on Afghan soil, but last month his deputy, Jumma Khan Hamdard, said the party was ready to cooperate with the interim administration.
Ruthless power struggles among Hekmatyar's forces and Northern Alliance factions devastated much of Kabul during the early 1990s, with 50,000 people, mostly civilians, killed, according to the International Red Cross.
Karzai, the leader of Afghanistan's interim government, Thursday was in Turkey.
Officials have delayed the return trip of former Afghan king Mohammad Zaher Shah to Afghanistan because of the threat of an attack by Hekmatyar supporters.
The supporters had distributed leaflets in Kabul warning that if the former Afghan king returned, he would be killed.
CNN Senior International Corrrespondent Walter Rogers contributed to this report
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