Afghan women's rights official shot dead

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Tuesday, September 26, 2006

Safia Ahmed-jan, the director of the Afghan Ministry of Women's Affairs for the Khandahar province and an advocate of women's rights and a strong critic of the Taliban's repression of those rights, was shot dead by unidentified gunmen outside her home in Khandahar city in southern Afghanistan on Monday.

Safia Ama-jan, as she was known locally, is the first woman official to be targeted by the Taliban-led insurgency since it was deposed in 2001.

Advocate for Woman's rights

Safia Ahmed-jan taught at a girls' school and was a high-school principal in Khandahar prior to the Taliban's 1996 rise to power in Afghanistan. When the Taliban regime banned education for girls and forbade women from working outside the home, she ran an underground school for girls at her home, said her son Naqibullah, speaking to the Associated Press.

After the Taliban government was overthrown in 2001, Ahmed-jan became the provincial chief for women's affairs in 2002, when the ministry was established and has since then held that position, worked for women's rights and particularly, championed the cause of educating girls. Her secretary, Abdullah Khan told Associated Press that among her most successful projects were the vocational training schools she opened in Khandahar, where almost 1000 women were taught baking, tailoring and other skills.

Ahmed-jan has also been fiercely critical of the repression of women during the Taliban rule, in a region that has remained conservative and emerged as a hotbed of the Taliban's insurgent activity. Her requests for personal security guards and transport went unheeded by the government, according to local media reports, though her nephew, Muhammad Asif told the New York Times that Ahmed-jan preferred to keep a low profile and used a taxi or public transport even though her office maintained cars and drivers.

Early morning shooting

Ahmed-jan was shot dead outside her house at about 7:30 a.m. local time (UTC+4:30) on Monday, as she left for work in a taxi. The gunmen are believed to have left scene on a motorcycle, and tyre marks have been found by the police, said the provincial governor Asadullah Khaled, who visited the scene of the attack.

Ahmed-jan was shot four times with a pistol, Muhammad Haidar, who worked in her office told the New York Times. Mohammad Nader, the head nurse at Khandahar's main hospital where Ahmed-jan was taken to, confirmed to the Chicago Tribune that she was shot four times, including once in the head.

She was about 65 years old.

Accounts of the shooting are sketchy, several reports suggesting no one witnessed it. However, one man, identified as Allaudin told Al Jazeera that he saw two men on motorcycles waiting on the road, who attacked Ahmed-jan as she left her house.

A spokesman for the Khandahar governor, Daud Ahmadi confirmed the death and said that Ahmed-jan had died on the spot. An investigation into the attack has begun, and local officials have blamed the Taliban.

Hundreds of men and women, including the Governor Asadullah Khaled were present at Ahmed-jan's funeral on Monday evening, which took place in Khandahar's main Shia mosque.

Killing condemned

The killing has been strongly condemned by the Afghan President Hamid Karzai as well as aid and human rights organisations in Afghanistan.

Aleem Siddique, a spokesman for the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA), said that UNAMA was "appalled at the senseless murder" of a woman who was working to ensure a full and equal part in the future of Afghanistan for its women. He added, "We share the sentiment of the majority of Afghan people who are appalled at this killing."

Abdul Quadar Noorzai, head of the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission (AIHRC) for the Khandahar region told IRIN News that Ahmed-jan's death will have a "serious impact on women's activities in the south where women are already suffering from ... the deteriorating security and conservative traditions,".

Fariba Ahmedi, a woman MP from Khandahar who was present at Ahmed-jan's funeral told the Associated Press, "The enemy of Afghanistan killed her, but they should know it will not derail women from the path we are on. We will continue on our way,".

Sonja Bachmann, a U.N. political officer who knew Ahmed-jan well told the New York Times that Ahmed-jan "did a good job, she worked in a very low-key way and worked hard to raise awareness about women's issues."

Claim of responsibility

Reuters and Associated Press received phone calls, claiming responsibility for the attacks on behalf of Mullah Sadullah, a regional Taliban commander, but no confirmation of the claim has been possible.

Another caller, who identified himself as Taliban commander Mullah Hayat Khan told Al Jazeera that Ahmed-jan was killed because she worked for the government.

Attacks mount

The Taliban-led insurgency has stepped up attacks in recent months, killing hundreds of people this year.

Last week, 19 Afghans working for reconstruction projects in the region were killed after their bus was ambushed. The Governor of Paktia province, a close associate of President Karzai, was killed in a suicide bombing on September 10.

Attacks on schools have also been stepped up. According to the Afghan education ministry, there have been 158 attacks on schools this year, compared to 146 last year. The attacks on schools are believed to be due partly to the Taliban's opposition to educating girls, as well as a way to undermine the Afghan government and it's reconstruction efforts.

Twelve suspected militants and two Afghan police officers were reported killed on Monday in separate incidents which also left eight others and a U.S. soldier wounded.

"People are scared, of course," Ahmad-jan's co-worker Haidar said, "How can we feel secure when the head of our department is killed in front of her house?"

Sources

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