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A top Taliban commander reportedly killed in raid

Interim president visits key warlord

KANDAHAR, Afghanistan -- A former inmate at the US prison camp at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, who returned to Afghanistan to rejoin the Taliban as a key commander, was killed with two other militiamen in a raid by Afghan security forces, two senior officials said yesterday.

Interim President Hamid Karzai, 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 antigovernment allies threaten to disrupt.

The Taliban commander, Maulvi Abdul Ghaffar, died along with two comrades in a gun battle Saturday night in Uruzgan, a southern province, said Governor Jan Mohammed Khan.

He said authorities had learned 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 injured.

The governor said Ghaffar had been a senior Taliban commander in northern Afghanistan and was arrested about two months after a US-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 Ali Ahmad Jalali, Afghanistan's interior minister, said Ghaffar was then appointed leader of the Taliban fighters in Uruzgan, a rugged region believed to be a stronghold of the hard-line Islamic militia.

US military officials said they could not immediately confirm Ghaffar had been in US custody.

Taliban-led insurgents are active in much of southern and eastern Afghanistan and frequently launch attacks on the US-backed government despite the deployment of thousands of US forces to hunt them down.

Officials are predicting an upsurge in violence before the presidential elections, slated for Oct. 9.

On Saturday, suspected Taliban rebels attacked a convoy of coalition and Afghan forces on patrol in Uruzgan and killed a district chief, Khan said. The forces were trying to increase security ahead of the election.

The rebels opened fire on a vehicle carrying Char Cheno, district chief of Wali Jan, killing him and seriously injuring two Afghan soldiers in the Yakhdan area, he said. The rebels fled into the mountains after the attack.

No coalition forces were injured, Khan said.

Major Mark McCann, a US military spokesman in Kabul, confirmed the attack on the convoy near Deh Rawood, a town in Uruzgan where there is a small US base, saying a district official was killed and three other Afghans were wounded, but not identifying the victims.

The violence has also targeted Karzai, a US-backed leader who escaped a rocket attack on an American military helicopter taking him to a southeastern city Sept. 16.

Making his first provincial trip since, Karzai yesterday 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 US-funded road project.

Karzai is widely expected to win the election. But it is unclear whether 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.

Karzai joked after yesterday's ceremony: ''I expected the general to say he would withdraw his candidacy, but he didn't."

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