KABUL, Afghanistan — The leading presidential candidate defiantly vowed to press ahead with his campaign after narrowly escaping an assassination attempt Friday that underscored Afghanistan's fragility as it prepares for its first democratic transfer of power and the withdrawal of foreign combat troops.
Two bombs struck Abdullah Abdullah's convoy as it was traveling between campaign events in the capital. The candidate was unharmed but it was a close call. At least 10 people, including three in his entourage, were killed and dozens were wounded in the attack, which heavily damaged the front of Abdullah's armored car, destroyed several vehicles and storefronts and left the street littered with twisted metal and other rubble.
"The aim of this incident is to create fear and anxiety among the people and prevent them from deciding their own destiny," Abdullah, 53, calmly told a rally at a Kabul hotel. "We will continue with our election campaign as usual, and no one can separate us from our people with these types of plots."
Although there was no immediate claim of responsibility, the bombings bore the hallmarks of Taliban militants who have vowed to disrupt the election as part of their fight against the Western-backed government.
The bombings happened eight days before a runoff in which Afghans are to choose a new leader to replace outgoing President Hamid Karzai. The Taliban have staged a series of high-profile attacks this year, though the first round of voting on April 5 was relatively peaceful. The attempt on Abdullah's life appeared to be the first direct attack on a candidate, as earlier ones targeted only campaign offices and workers.
If one of the candidates were to die, that would have huge implications not only for Afghanistan's stability but for the Obama administration's hopes for a signed security agreement in time to make preparations for keeping about 10,000 U.S. troops in the country for another two years. The Afghan constitution says new elections must be held in the event of a candidate's death.
Karzai condemned the bombings, saying they were staged by "enemies of Afghanistan who don't want free elections."
Abdullah had just addressed a rally at a wedding hall and was heading toward a campaign event at the Intercontinental Hotel when his convoy was hit along a street in a commercial area of western Kabul. The attack took place about noon, when many Afghans were indoors for Friday prayers.
Interior Ministry spokesman Sediq Sediqqi said a suicide bombing was followed by a roadside bomb. But Gul Agha Hashim, Kabul's criminal investigation chief, said the first blast was carried out by a suicide bomber on foot and the second by a suicide car bomber.
Health Minister Suraya Dalil told The Associated Press that 10 people were killed and 37 wounded. Three of those killed were a driver and two were bodyguards in another car in Abdullah's convoy, according to Fazel Sangcharaki, a spokesman for the candidate.
A former Afghan foreign minister, Abdullah was the runner-up in the disputed presidential elections of 2009 and hopes again now to succeed Karzai, who is constitutionally barred from seeking a third term.
Abdullah is the front-runner for the June 14 runoff, facing former Finance Minister Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai. In the initial balloting, he garnered 45 percent of votes while Ahmadzai came in second with 31.6 percent. Former presidential candidate Zalmai Rassoul, who is now supporting Abdullah, also was in the car with Abdullah on Friday but was not injured.
Abdullah — who is half Pashtun and half Tajik — has a strong following among ethnic Tajiks but has sought to broaden his support base by choosing a well-known leader of the minority ethnic Hazara group and a Pashtun leader of the powerful Hezb-i-Islami group as vice presidential candidates.
The vote comes at a pivotal time as the international community prepares to withdraw combat forces by the end of this year. The U.S. and its coalition allies have tried to transform a small and ineffectual Afghan military and police into a huge force of 350,000, but huge obstacles remain. Large parts of the country have become practically inaccessible.
Both Abdullah and Ahmadzai have pledged to sign a security pact with the U.S. that will allow American troops to remain in the country after 2014 in a training and advisory capacity. Karzai refused to sign it and has irritated Washington with his anti-American rhetoric.
Although billions of dollars have poured into the country since the fall of the Taliban regime in 2001, much of this money landed in the pockets of corrupt businessmen and politicians, further widening the divide between rich and poor. The rampant poverty has helped keep alive the Taliban insurgency, which shows no sign of letting up.
In the early days after the U.S.-led alliance toppled the Taliban regime in 2001, Abdullah became the face of Afghanistan's anti-Taliban movement, giving frequent press conferences to international media.
Abdullah previously served as a close aide to the late Ahmad Shah Masood, the Northern Alliance rebel commander who was killed in an al-Qaida suicide bombing two days before the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.
"The enemy cannot defeat us or prevent the decision of the people of Afghanistan," the candidate declared after Friday's attack.