KABUL, Afghanistan — The man who killed Afghanistan's top peace negotiator claimed to be a Taliban courier delivering audio messages from the insurgent group's senior leadership in Pakistan, Afghan President Hamid Karzai said Thursday.
Karzai told a press conference that the man who assassinated former President Burhanuddin Rabbani — head of the government's U.S.-backed High Peace Council, tasked with promoting reconciliation with the Taliban — was "a terrorist and murderer who disguised himself as a messenger of peace."
Offering new details about Rabbani's death Tuesday, which dealt a major blow to faltering Afghan and U.S. efforts to negotiate an end to the decade-long war, Karzai said that before he flew to New York for this week's United Nations General Assembly meeting, he was informed that a Taliban leader in Quetta, the Pakistani city where the Taliban governing council is reportedly based, had sent a recorded message to the peace council.
In the message, Karzai said, the Taliban leader referred to Rabbani as a respected teacher and spoke in conciliatory tones about making peace. When he informed Rabbani about the recording, the 71-year-old former president rushed home from a trip to Iran to hear it, Karzai said.
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The courier was invited to Rabbani's home in Kabul's diplomatic enclave, a few blocks away from the U.S. Embassy, and out of respect wasn't thoroughly searched, Afghan officials have said. He then detonated a bomb hidden in his turban, killing Rabbani and wounding Rahmatullah Wahidyar, a former Taliban minister and peace council member, and Masoom Stanekzai, director of the peace council's secretariat. The assassin was also killed.
The Taliban has denied responsibility for the killing. But Shafiqullah Tahiri, a spokesman for Afghanistan's main intelligence service, said Thursday that officials believe that the Taliban was behind the assassination and had plotted it for four months.
Karzai identified the assassin as a man named Esmatullah. Many Afghans go by only one name.
"We want peace at any price because that is what God wants, and these killings cannot prevent us from reaching peace," Karzai said at the presidential palace.
But a spate of other killings of high-profile government and police officials, as well as a series of spectacular attacks in the heart of the capital, have renewed serious questions about the possibility of negotiating a truce with insurgents before U.S. and allied combat troops withdraw completely from Afghanistan by 2014.
In Washington, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta told the Senate Armed Services Committee that Rabbani's killing and the other attacks were signs "of weakness of the insurgency," which he said was resorting to desperation tactics.
Asked by Sen. John McCain whether Rabbani's killing showed "that the Taliban doesn't want to reconcile," Panetta responded: "It does raise concerns. It raises suspicions."
"Nevertheless, I think, obviously, we have to continue to try to pursue the opportunities that are out there," he said. "But we ought to do it with our eyes open. We ought to do it, understanding who we're dealing with and where they're coming from, and not expect that, you know, that this is by any means going to be easy in dealing with them."
Rabbani was scheduled to be buried on a Kabul hilltop Friday before thousands of mourners.
The U.S.-funded peace council has made virtually no progress, and Karzai and his key aides have pursued their own efforts with the same result. U.S. contacts with a former aide to Taliban leader Mullah Mohammad Omar, who's thought to be operating from Pakistan, have produced no known results.
In an Internet message last month, Omar reiterated his position that there could be no negotiations until all foreign troops departed.
Afghanistan's main opposition leader, Abdullah Abdullah, accused Karzai's government of failing to provide security.
"The actions of everyone — from the president to the last person who was involved directly or indirectly in this case — is questionable," Abdullah told a news conference.
Abdullah said that the government's reconciliation plan must be "completely revisited" and warned that the government's silence on what he called "serial assassinations" of top officials was unacceptable.
"The government should not take people's silence for granted," he said. "They are waiting for their questions to be answered. If their questions are not answered they will react."
(Zohori is a McClatchy special correspondent.)
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