Afghan rivals hold duelling inaugurations amid attack on political rally
President Ashraf Ghani was sworn in for a second term on Monday as opposition leader, while his former electoral opponent Abdullah Abdullah held a rival inauguration. Ghani's ceremony was disrupted by the sound of two rockets hitting the edge of the compound of the presidential palace compound in the capital Kabul, Reuters witnesses said. The Islamic State (IS) group claimed responsibility for the attack.
Afghanistan's two rival leaders were preparing to hold parallel presidential inaugurations on Monday, after the pair failed to reach a deal in the face of a unified and resurgent Taliban.
The spat has raised fears for Afghanistan's fragile democracy as the US prepares to leave the country following an agreement with the insurgents last month, with President Donald Trump committed to ending America's longest war.
As hundreds of people had assembled at two venues inside the presidential palace complex to watch the rival swearing-in ceremonies, two blasts were heard, prompting some to flee. "Caliphate soldiers targeted the inauguration of the tyrant Ashraf Ghani", firing 10 rockets near the presidential palace in Kabul, the IS group subsequently said in a statement released via its usual social media channels.
"I have no bulletproof vest on, only my shirt, I will stay even if I have to sacrifice my head," Ghani told the remaining crowd, as sirens sounded overhead.
Polls were held in September but incumbent Ashraf Ghani was only declared to have won a second term in February after repeated delays and accusations of voter fraud, sparking a furious response by former chief executive Abdullah Abdullah, who vowed to form his own parallel government.
Last-minute talks reportedly extended late into the night Sunday as the two sides sought to broker an agreement.
But by Monday morning, there was little indication a solution had been found, with Ghani's spokesman only announcing that his inauguration would be delayed by several hours.
Abdullah's spokesman Faraidoon Khwazoon told AFP the ceremony would go ahead as planned but cautioned: "Things can change".
Washington had earlier warned that the bickering posed a risk to the US withdrawal deal, which requires the Taliban to hold talks with Kabul.
Widening divisions among Afghan politicians would leave the insurgents with the upper hand in those negotiations.
Fight for power
Their game of thrones has left many Afghans despairing for their country's future, worried that Kabul's politicians will be no match for the Taliban in any peace talks.
"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".
He told AFP that "instead of holding oath-taking ceremonies they should talk to each other to find a solution".
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 Friday rally in Kabul commemorating a politician from the Hazara ethnic group.
The Taliban have also ramped up attacks on Afghan forces and civilians.
The ceremonies will take place under heightened security, with road closures and multiple checkpoints set up in Kabul hours before the two men were due to be sworn in.
Dozens of supporters waited at two separate venues inside the grounds of the presidential palace, where both men were expected to hold their ceremonies.
Experts say the infighting is likely to cost the government, which is already under pressure after being shut out of the Doha negotiations.
According to the agreement signed in Qatar, foreign troops will withdraw from Afghanistan in 14 months, in return for various security commitments from the Taliban 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 told AFP.
The prolonged political crisis has brought back memories of the angrily contested 2014 election, which also saw Ghani declared the winner.
That time, Abdullah's supporters held violent demonstrations before the US finally intervened to broker an awkward deal between the two rivals, with Ghani as the president and Abdullah as the chief executive.
The renewed bickering has added to the frustrations of ordinary Afghans.
"They make promises during the campaign but never act on their promises," Kabul resident Noman Formuli said.
"They had promised to bring security, they failed. They promised jobs for the country, they failed," the 24-year-old told AFP.
"We are tired of seeing them".
(FRANCE 24 with AFP and REUTERS)
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