KABUL (AFP) — Afghan President Hamid Karzai escaped unharmed Sunday after militants attacked a high-profile military parade with rockets and gunfire, killing three people including an MP and wounding a dozen.
The extremist Taliban movement claimed responsibility for the daring attack, denying however that it was an assassination attempt on Karzai.
Bullets struck into the back of a stage where the president, Afghan dignitaries and senior international representatives were seated to review the country's most important annual military parade.
There were also several large explosions, with one -- likely from a rocket-propelled grenade -- landing just in front of the platform, Health Minister Mohammad Amin Fatimie told AFP.
Bodyguards sprang to protect the president and then whisked him away as others on the stage fell to the floor, said Fatimie, who was just metres away from Karzai.
The roughly 3,000 police and troops preparing for the parade broke from their formations and fled as security guards stationed across the area returned fire.
The leader of a minority tribe who had been sitting on the stage was killed in the gunfire, which appeared to come from derelict buildings about 400 metres (1,300 feet) from Karzai.
Parliamentarian Fazl-Ul Rahman Samkanai died later in hospital, the health minister said.
A 10-year-old boy living in the area was also killed, apparently in return fire, officials said.
A Taliban spokesman, who called media to claim the attack as it was unfolding, said three of his group's men were killed. He did not say how and this was not immediately confirmed by authorities.
Shortly after the incident, which was broadcast live on television, the president appeared on camera to reassure the public and announce some of the attackers had already been caught.
"Fortunately Afghan security forces quickly surrounded them. Some of them were captured," Karzai said. "Everything is calm, rest assured."
The attack erupted soon after Karzai had taken the stage following an inspection of troops and as a 21-gun salute was ringing out across the city.
Tight security was in place for the parade, which was celebrating 16 years since the fall of the last communist government.
The Taliban, which was in power between 1996 and 2001, said it had wanted to show it could strike at will.
"We had placed six personnel in the area. Three of our men have been killed," spokesman Zabihullah Mujahed told an AFP reporter.
"Our aim was not to directly hit someone," Mujahed said when asked if the intention was to kill Karzai. "We just wanted to show to the world that we can attack anywhere we want to."
The US-led military coalition said meanwhile it had killed several insurgents in a raid Saturday on a Taliban hideout targeted at a rebel leader who was planning to attack Sunday's ceremony.
There were also civilians among the dead, a spokeswoman told AFP although she was not able to give details.
The annual Victory Day parade -- which normally includes a display of troops, tanks and aircraft -- is a show of might for the Afghan army, which was in ruins at the fall of the Taliban regime and is being rebuilt with international help, notably from the United States.
The Taliban were ousted in a US-led invasion for harbouring Al-Qaeda leaders after the 2001 attacks on New York and Washington.
They have regrouped to wage an insurgency that last year left 8,000 people dead, mostly rebel fighters but including 1,500 civilians.
Karzai has survived several assassination attempts: in 2002 a guard opened fire on his vehicle in the southern city of Kandahar. In 2004, two rockets were fired at his chopper but missed.
The United Nations and the governments of India, Pakistan and other countries expressed outrage at Sunday's attack.
It showed "the need for the international community to show zero tolerance for terrorism," said Indian Foreign Minister Pranab Mukherjee.
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