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Karzai escapes assassination bid

Hamid Karzai

KABUL, Afghanistan (CNN) -- Afghanistan's interim President Hamid Karzai has escaped what the U.S. military described as an assassination bid when a rocket was fired at his helicopter while he was campaigning for next month's scheduled election.

Karzai was about to land in Gardez, about 100 miles (161 km) south of Kabul, for a road opening ceremony when the missile was fired. He aborted the trip and immediately returned to the presidential palace in the capital.

Eyewitnesses said the rocket flew over Karzai's U.S. military helicopter and 400 supporters gathered to meet him at a school as he was about to touch down, but caused no injuries.

"A rocket was fired at President Karzai as his helicopter was landing," U.S. military spokesman Major Mark McCann told Reuters. "It missed and landed about 300 metres from a school in the vicinity of the landing area."

Taliban guerrillas claimed responsibility but the government said it it did not know who was to blame.

Karzai escaped an assassination attempt in 2002 in the southern city of Kandahar. His security was later tightened.

He has since rarely been seen in Afghanistan outside his fortified presidential palace in Kabul where he is protected by U.S. bodyguards.

Security concerns in Afghanistan are a major concern in the runup to the October 9 election, despite the presence of an 18,000-strong U.S.-led force in the nation.

Close to 1,000 people, including security forces, militants, election workers, aid workers and civilians, have been killed in a campaign of violence over the past 12 months.

Nonetheless about 10.5 million Afghans have registered to vote, including 4.3 million women, for 18 candidates including Karzai.

Karzai, who has the strong backing of the United States and the West, is seen as a favorite to win the poll, but rivals may force him into a run-off.

Taliban guerrillas have vowed to disrupt the election, which U.S. President George W. Bush hopes to see go smoothly ahead of his own election show-down in early November.

Bush sent U.S. forces into Afghanistan in 2001 to overthrow the hardline Islamic Taliban regime after it refused to hand over al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden following the September 11 attacks.

Both the presidential and parliamentary polls were due to be held last June, but were delayed due to security and logistical concerns.

Parliamentary elections were put off until next April.

Journalist Kitty Logan contributed to this report

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