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Blasts hit Afghanistan as feuding leaders hold separate ceremonies

KABUL: Officials and guests react after hearing loud blasts during Afghan President Ashraf Ghani’s swearing in inauguration ceremony, at the Presidential Palace in Kabul yesterday. – AFP

KABUL: Afghanistan lurched deeper into political crisis yesterday as the country’s two rival leaders swore themselves in as president at simultaneous ceremonies that were interrupted by at least two blasts. The bitter feud between President Ashraf Ghani and his former chief executive Abdullah Abdullah has raised fears for Afghanistan’s fragile democracy as the US prepares to leave the country following an agreement last month with a strong and largely unified Taleban.

Polls were held in September, but repeated delays and accusations of voter fraud meant that Ghani, the incumbent president, was only declared as winner of a second term in February – sparking a furious response from Abdullah, who vowed to form his own parallel government. Yesterday Ghani, dressed in traditional Afghan clothing and white turban, arrived at the presidential palace to be sworn in, surrounded by supporters, senior political figures, diplomats and foreign dignitaries including US special envoy Zalmay Khalilzad.

Minutes later, in another corner of the sprawling presidential palace compound, a suit-clad Abdullah inaugurated himself as president, vowing to “safeguard the independence, national sovereignty, territorial integrity” of Afghanistan. As hundreds of people watched Ghani’s ceremony, two loud explosions were heard, prompting some people to flee. There were no reports of casualties from the blasts, which mirrored a similar incident in August 2018 when militants fired several mortars as Ghani was making a speech at the palace, injuring six civilians. “I have no bulletproof vest on, only my shirt,” Ghani told those who stayed behind as sirens wailed. “I will stay even if I have to sacrifice my head.”

An AFP reporter saw many of those who fled return to their seats after Ghani’s refusal to leave the podium prompted cheers and applause. The game of thrones has strained the patience of the international community and Afghans alike, with Washington warning earlier that the bickering posed a risk to the US withdrawal deal, which requires the Taleban to hold talks with Kabul. Widening divisions among Afghan politicians would leave the insurgents with the upper hand in those negotiations.

Fight for power
The row has left many Afghans despairing for their country’s future. “It is impossible to have two presidents in one country,” said Ahmad Jawed, 22, who urged the men “to put their personal interests aside and only think of their country instead of fighting for power”. “Instead of holding oath-taking ceremonies they should talk to each other to find a solution”, he told AFP. During yesterday’s speech, Ghani appeared to extend an olive branch to his opponents, saying: “Today is the day for unity we have to think about the future.”

“I call on … (past) political rivals to lend me a hand and a shoulder to serve this country. Our mission is peace and ending the 40 years of war,” he added. Afghans have shown little enthusiasm for Abdullah, Ghani or the election process in general. Most of them abstained in last year’s lacklustre poll that saw candidates pitch few ideas or policies. Unemployment is high, and even university graduates like Jawed are struggling to find work, while violence has continued unabated, except for during a week-long partial truce ahead of the US-Taliban deal.

In the deadliest attack to hit Afghanistan in weeks, Islamic State group gunmen shot dead 32 people and wounded dozens of others at a political rally in Kabul on Friday. The Taleban, who have slammed the electoral process as “a fake and foreign-run” affair, have also ramped up attacks on Afghan forces and civilians. The insurgents’ spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid said the competing ceremonies showed that “nothing is more important to the slaves than their personal interests”.

Heightened security
Security appeared to have been tightened for the ceremonies, with road closures and multiple checkpoints set up in Kabul hours before the two men were sworn in.Experts say the infighting is likely to cost the government, which is already under pressure after being shut out of the Doha negotiations for the US-Taleban deal.

According to the agreement signed in Qatar, foreign troops will withdraw from Afghanistan in 14 months, in return for various security commitments from the Taleban and a pledge to hold talks with Kabul. Political analyst Atta Noori said the squabbling would “gravely affect the government’s position in the upcoming intra-Afghan talks”. “Unity is the only way (forward) if they want to win on the negotiating table,” he said. – AFP

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