Assassinated Afghan opposition commander Ahmad Shah Masood, the "Lion of Panjshir," was buried on Sunday at a funeral attended by thousands of emotional villagers in the Panjshir Valley.
Supporters lined the dusty tracks of Afghanistan's Bozarak district to bid farewell to Masood, the leader of the last pocket of anti-Taliban forces in Afghanistan.
Masood's coffin arrived at his beloved Panjshir Valley by helicopter from northeastern Takhar province, where the veteran guerrilla died Saturday of injuries sustained in a suicide bombing the previous Sunday.
Draped in the green, white and black flag of the ousted Afghan government, the coffin's arrival sparked chaotic scenes as hundreds of men shouting "Allah akbar" (God is great) rushed forward to touch it or throw flowers.
Opposition leaders including Masood's replacement, General Fahim and ousted president Burhanuddin Rabbani were present, along with Masood's 13-year-old son Ahmad, who vowed to pick up the fight against the Taliban militia.
"I just want to follow the path of my father and achieve independence form my country," the boy told the crowd with a clear, steady voice as everyone around him burst into tears.
"It was one of my father's aims to be a martyr and he achieved that aim, but it was not the right time."
Masood's death has left a gaping hole in the anti-Taliban alliance which clings to the Panjshir, northeastern Badakhshan province and pockets of territory in the north and west.
The 48-year-old ethnic Tajik defended the Panjshir against the Soviet army throughout the 1979-89 occupation and has never let it fall to the radical Islamic militia which captured Kabul in 1996.
Almost every house and car in the district was bedecked with black flags, photos of Masood wearing his trademark woolen hat, and banners hailing "Masood the Hero".
"You are the heart of every Afghan. You have broken our hearts with your death," said the inscription beneath the photos.
As the coffin was displayed in view of Masood's modest one-story house, Rabbani launched a broadside against the Taliban and their main allies, Pakistan and Saudi-born dissident Osama bin Laden.
"The Taliban are under the control of bin Laden, and they are the creatures of Pakistan," he said. "They will be eradicated at once if God is willing."
With the Taliban and their Saudi-born ally, bin Laden, accused of complicity in Sunday's suicide bombing, there has been inevitable speculation linking the assassination to Tuesday's terrorist atrocities in the United States.
Notable absentees from the funeral service were opposition alliance members Abdul Rashid Dostam, a strongman from the Uzbek ethnic minority based in northern Balkh province, and Ismail Khan, the former governor of western Herat province.
In the blazing morning sunshine, a mullah (cleric) led a prayer with a loudspeaker from the back of a military jeep as women and girls watched from nearby hills.
The coffin was then loaded onto a cannon trailer and slowly towed behind an armored personnel carrier some four kilometers to Saricha village in the heart of the Panjshir.
People lined the road and jostled to get close to the coffin as it meandered through the rural countryside, between fields sown with wheat and vegetables, to a hill where it was lowered into the ground.
Messages of condolences have come from the European Parliament, where Masood met European leaders in a rare diplomatic foray outside Afghanistan earlier this year, as well as Russia and Britain.
Russia said it would continue to support the alliance. From Moscow, Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov said Russia's "cooperation in restoring peace and stability in Afghanistan will be continued."
Britain condemned the terrorist attack and underlined the need for a stable government in the country, which has been at war in one form or another since 1979.
"His death has to be seen in the context of the many people who have died in the conflict there. There clearly needs to be a comprehensive approach to restoring peace in Afghanistan," a foreign office spokesman said.
In the concluding years of his life, Masood was seen as the last obstacle to the Taliban's ambitions of ruling the entire country with its iron-fisted interpretation of Islamic law -- PANJSHIR VALLEY, Afghanistan (AFP)
© 2001 Al Bawaba (www.albawaba.com)