By Hamid Shalizi
KABUL (Reuters) - The suicide bomber who killed former Afghan President Burhanuddin Rabbani had claimed he was representing a mysterious figure mediating between the government and the Taliban's senior leadership, a survivor of the attack said on Thursday.
The chilling account of Tuesday's assassination came from former Taliban minister and member of Rabbani's High Peace Council, Rahmatullah Wahidyar, who described how the former president was lured into a trap while in pursuit of a political settlement to Afghanistan's intractable conflict.
Wahidyar said the bomber came as an envoy for a man called Hameedullah Akhondzada, who had claimed to have been in contact with top Taliban leaders.
He did not say what credentials Akhondzada presented, but he earned the trust of Rabbani and presidential advisor Masoom Stanekzai over several meetings held since June.
After one of these meetings Akhondzada had said the group was ready to start talks with the government, and would send a new envoy with a message, Wahidyar told a news conference in the Afghan capital.
"Hameedullah Akhondzada requested us to record our message and said he would take it to the Quetta Shura," Wahidyar said, referring to the Taliban's leadership council.
Shortly after the end of the Muslim fasting month of Ramadan, Akhondzada said that a man named Esmatullah would come as a courier for two voice recordings.
Wahidyar said he and Stanekzai listened to one recording, of a voice venting disdain at the presence of foreign troops in Afghanistan and what it said was a rise in immoral activities.
The second Esmatullah said was an "important message," exclusively for Rabbani. He killed the former president on a visit to deliver that message.
"When we went inside the room, Professor Rabbani stood and hugged the peace messenger. As I shook hands with Stanekzai, I heard a bang," Wahidyar told a news conference, which he arrived at still limping from his injuries.
"I fell unconscious but when I opened my eyes, I saw the headless body of the bomber lying on the floor. I looked around, everything was chaos."
Afghanistan's intelligence service, the National Directorate of Security, had organized the news conference and said they considered Wahidyar a victim, not a suspect. Stanekzai sustained serious injuries and was being treated in hospital.
VOWS OF REVENGE
Rabbani's death was the latest in a series of high-profile assassinations that have dealt a blow to the government's hopes of reconciliation and raised fears of an escalation of tensions between the country ethnic groups.
First known as a fiery lecturer and Islamist activist, he later became a mujahideen fighter and then took charge of the country after the fall of the Soviet-backed regime.
His killing angered many ethnic Tajiks in northern Afghanistan and was seem as a clear rejection of peace efforts by the Taliban, which had indicated it would consider dialogue.
Having initially claimed responsibility for his death in a telephone interview with a Reuters reporter in Pakistan, Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid issued a statement on Wednesday denying the comments were made.
He did not explicitly deny the group was involved and said it was not prepared to comment on Rabbani's assassination.
BLOW ON RECONCILIATION
President Hamid Karzai, who cut short a trip to the United Nations General Assembly in New York, on Thursday expressed sadness for Rabbani's death, saying a shadowy figure posing as a
peace envoy turned out to be "a terrorist and a killer."
His assassination was met with sorrow and anger across Afghanistan, with protests in his native Badakhshan province and vows of revenge by Rabbani loyalists, who threatened to take up arms against those behind his killing.
Rabbani's burial was scheduled to take place on Friday in the Wazir Akbar Khan hilltop overlooking Kabul's expensive and heavily guarded diplomatic enclave.
His death comes two months after NATO-led foreign troops, that have claimed progress against insurgents, started a gradual withdrawal due to be completed by the end of 2014.
U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan, Ryan Crocker said Afghanistan and its international backers should ensure Rabbani's work was not in vain, but warned that his killings damaged hope for serious peace talks..
He said Rabbani's death "raises very serious questions as to whether the Taliban and those who support them have any real interest in reconciliation."
(Additional reporting by Mirwais Harooni and Emma Graham-Harrison; Writing by Martin Petty; Editing by Emma Graham-Harrison and Sanjeev Miglani)