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Sunday, 16 September, 2001, 05:01 GMT 06:01 UK
Afghan opposition leader dead
Commander Ahmed Masood
Commander Masood was widely regarded as a national hero
The lynchpin of the anti-Taleban movement in Afghanistan, Ahmed Shah Masood, has been confirmed dead following a bomb attack last week.

The confirmation, after days of conflicting reports, is widely seen as a devastating blow to the opposition in a country now nearly totally controlled by the Islamic Taleban regime.

With his passing goes the most emblematic figure of the Afghan people's resistance to all oppression

Nicole Fontaine, European Parliament President
Opposition leaders have said the assassination involved the Taleban, Pakistan and supporters of Osama Bin Laden, the Saudi dissident accused of masterminding last Tuesday's attacks on New York and Washington.

The 49-year-old Masood had been giving an interview to two Arabs posing as journalists when a bomb went off. It had been concealed in a video camera.

Key obstacle

His chief spokesman, Dr Abdullah, said the commander died in Takhar province on Saturday morning.

An official said Masood had been in a coma all week.

Dr Abdullah said senior officials from Masood's alliance swiftly met after his death to appoint replacements.

A deputy to Masood, General Muhammad Fahim, has already been named as acting defence minister.

Masood was not in fact the official leader of the opposition, but he was widely seen as the real obstacle to the Taleban militia gaining the enclaves of Afghanistan they have yet to occupy.

His troops hold the strategic Panjshir valley north of Kabul and mountainous country even further north.

Correspondents say the Taleban would have good reason to want him eliminated.

Just last year, they appeared set to take control of the whole country. But Masood, pushed back to the north-east province of Badakhshan, worked to build up a well-trained force capable of putting up resistance.

Dark future

Masood was dubbed the "Lion of Panjshir" for his resistance to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan from 1979, and went on to become defence minister after the capital, Kabul, was recaptured in 1992.

But warring factions within the government brought new conflict to Kabul. Then a new force backed by Pakistan, the Taleban, swept through the country and took the capital for themselves in 1996.

Now, some observers say, the whole country may be there for the taking.

"With his passing goes the most emblematic figure of the Afghan people's resistance to all oppression," said the President of the European Parliament, Nicole Fontaine.

She also took the opportunity to argue against retaliatory action for Tuesday's attacks on the US which, she argued, could make worse the plight of the Afghan people.

"The Afghan people have been living in darkness and war for decades, and they do not deserve more collective punishment," she said.

The BBC's Kate Clark, in Islamabad
"Ahmed Shah Masood was easily the most important opposition leader in Afghanistan"
See also:

11 Sep 01 | South Asia
Profile: The Lion of Panjshir
11 Sep 01 | South Asia
Afghan opposition leader 'still alive'
11 Sep 01 | South Asia
Afghan opposition's prospects
11 Sep 01 | South Asia
Masood attack: Reports differ wildly
11 Sep 01 | South Asia
Analysis: Masood's regional allies
20 Dec 00 | South Asia
Analysis: Who are the Taleban?
05 Apr 01 | South Asia
Europe fetes anti-Taleban leader
14 Feb 01 | South Asia
Taleban lose key city
16 Sep 00 | South Asia
Afghan war threatens region
03 Aug 98 | South Asia
Afghanistan's years of bloodshed
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