Afghan Minister Escapes Gunmen

Spanish COUGAR helicopter in flight, Afghanistan, 2005/2/7
Gunmen opened fire near the Afghan defense minister as he prepared to board a helicopter at Kabul's main airport Saturday, but no one was wounded and it was not immediately clear whether it was an assassination attempt, officials said.

Earlier, a helicopter carrying Afghanistan's army chief and a Cabinet minister crashed shortly after takeoff, exploding into flames, but all on board managed to escape the burning wreckage.

The shots went over the top of Defense Minister Rahim Wardak's convoy which was parked at the airport while the minister was boarding a nearby helicopter, said a senior government official.

He said the shots had not been fired directly at the minister and that the gunmen were Afghan army soldiers angered by a pay dispute.

Another official said some people had been arrested, but declined to identify them or say why they had opened fire.

Both officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they are not authorized to speak on the matter.

In the helicopter crash, the pilot and Sediqa Balkhi, the minister for the disabled, were slightly injured, according to an Associated Press photographer who witnessed the crash.

The Afghan army chopper had just taken off when it suddenly turned on its side and plunged back to the ground before bursting into flames.

It was not immediately clear why the helicopter crashed.

When the chopper hit the ground and exploded, it sent metal pieces flying in several directions, some of which slammed into a group of vehicles parked nearby.

Balkhi and army chief Bismillah Khan were in the Panjshir Valley for a memorial in honor of Ahmed Shah Masood, the former head of the U.S.-backed Northern Alliance who was killed by two suspected al Qaeda assassins on Sept. 9. 2001.

Several other government leaders, foreign ambassadors and other dignitaries were also there. There were no reports that they or anyone else on the ground were wounded.