Western Journalist Is Killed in Afghanistan

Posted on March 12, 2014

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ByMATTHEW ROSENBERG MARCH 11, 2014

KABUL, Afghanistan — Two men shot a Swedish reporter on a crowded street in Kabul on Tuesday, in a rare assassination-style killing of a Westerner that raised new questions about the safety of the large international presence expected to remain here after American-led combat forces depart this year.

The reporter, Nils Horner, 51, a longtime foreign correspondent for Swedish Radio, was shot two blocks from the wreckage of a restaurant where suicide attackers killed 21 people, most of them foreigners, in January. Col. Najibullah Samsour, a senior police official, said that Mr. Horner was standing outside another restaurant talking to security guards when a pair of men in what was described as traditional clothing walked up.

One of the men then drew a pistol and fired a shot into the journalist’s face, Colonel Samsour said. The men fled, and no arrests had been made by day’s end. A spokesman for the Taliban, Zabiullah Mujahid, denied that the group was involved, and no claim of responsibility was reported.

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Nils HornerCreditMattias Ahlm/Swedish Radio, via Reuters

Another Afghan security official said the killer’s pistol was fitted with a silencer.

The daylight attack was the first time in years that a Westerner appeared to have been specifically targeted and killed in Kabul. It took place in one of Kabul’s most heavily guarded neighborhoods, amid an especially heavy security presence for the funeral of the country’s powerful first vice president, Muhammad Qasim Fahim.

Mr. Fahim, who died of a heart attack Sunday, rose to prominence fighting the Taliban in the 1990s. He had endured a number of assassination attempts in recent years, and even in death he was believed to remain an appealing target for insurgents. His funeral attracted dignitaries from across Afghanistan and abroad, and tens of thousands of Mr. Fahim’s supporters — nearly all of whom would, by extension, tend to be fiercely anti-Taliban — turned out to see his burial.

The funeral for Mr. Fahim was held inside the Presidential Palace in Kabul, where President Hamid Karzai gathered with hundreds of other political and military leaders and other dignitaries.

The public burial took place later in the day on a hilltop. The police tried to limit attendance but gave up as wave after wave of Mr. Fahim’s supporters walked to the hill. After Mr. Fahim’s body arrived in a white ambulance, thousands of people rushed the grave site, and the men carrying the coffin nearly dropped it before they could put in the grave.

In one indication of the current mood here, the crowd broke into numerous chants after the burial, denouncing the Taliban and the West with equal vehemence. “Down with America,” “Down with English,” “Down with the West,” and “Down with the Taliban,” they shouted.

Even before the funeral and the attack on Mr. Horner, growing anti-Western sentiment among Afghans had become increasingly apparent on the streets of Kabul. The hard stares directed at Westerners have grown more common, and the questioning by the police at checkpoints more aggressive.

At least some of the resentment has grown from years of seeing Westerners behave in ways deeply out of sync with Afghan life. Kabul once had a thriving, albeit limited, expatriate social scene. There were a handful of restaurants and bars that catered almost exclusively to foreigners — Afghans are legally barred from drinking — and regular parties at the lightly guarded homes in which many Westerners here live.

But the deteriorating security situation in many rural areas of Afghanistan and a number of high-profile attacks on Afghan officials, Western embassies and coalition forces in Kabul in recent years had, by the start of this year, forced many foreigners, especially diplomats, to live under tighter security restrictions.

Then in January, Taliban fighters struck at a Lebanese restaurant, Taverna du Liban, that had been a mainstay of Kabul’s expatriate social scene. The Taliban claimed responsibility for the suicide attack, and said for the first time that they had specifically sought to kill Western civilians.

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Members of an honor guard with Mr. Fahim’s coffin Tuesday at the Presidential Palace in Kabul. CreditOmar Sobhani/Reuters

Since the attack on Taverna du Liban, other restaurants that are popular with foreigners have seen their business plummet. The potential for violence during the coming presidential elections has also put many international organizations on a more vigilant security footing, and many Westerners who had freely traveled around the city have either chosen to scale back their movements or have been forced to do so by security restrictions put in place by their employers.

Why Mr. Horner, a dual British and Swedish citizen, might have been targeted was a mystery to his colleagues and security officials. Swedish Radio told The Associated Press that neither Mr. Horner nor the organization had been threatened, and that Mr. Horner visited Kabul only a few times a year.

He arrived in Kabul on Sunday and was staying at a guesthouse, according to the Swedish Embassy, and neither his employer nor Afghan officials said they knew of any personal disputes that could have led to his killing.

According to witnesses, the journalist was standing outside another Lebanese restaurant, Beirut, and was asking security guards there about a chef who survived the attack on Taverna du Liban, just around the corner. Mr. Horner was apparently trying to track him down.

Employees then heard a gunshot.

“When I came out of the restaurant, he was lying on the street. The Afghan interpreter and his driver were trying to help him and get him in the car,” said an employee of Beirut, who asked not to be identified because he was afraid the gunmen would return.

“The police arrived minutes after the shooting and took him to the hospital,” he said.

The neighborhood where the attack happened, Wazir Akbar Khan, is among Kabul’s most expensive, and it is thick with foreigners. Five major news organizations have offices in the same general area.

The few previous fatal attacks on individual foreigners in Kabul have targeted longer-term residents. In October 2008, a Briton and a South African working for the international courier company DHL were shot and killed by a disgruntled security guard. Earlier in the same week, the Taliban claimed responsibility for the shooting of an aid worker who they said had been trying to convert Afghans to Christianity.

An official from an international development organization said discussions about how large an expatriate staff could safely work in Afghanistan beyond this year had already been intensifying among his colleagues before Mr. Horner’s death.

Now, “our rethink is going to get that much harder. It’s urgent,” said the official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to avoid alienating his Afghan employees.

Haris Kakar and Habib Zahori contributed reporting.

A version of this article appears in print on March 12, 2014, on page A10 of the New York edition with the headline: Western Journalist Is Shot and Killed as Kabul Mourns Official’s Death.

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