Theories, but few facts, for strange events

In and around Kabul, it's hard to get at truth of the odd blast or blackout

War On Terrorism

The World

November 24, 2001|By Dan Fesperman | Dan Fesperman,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

KABUL, Afghanistan - The official line here yesterday from the Northern Alliance was that local Taliban forces were back on the warpath only 20 miles to the southwest.

The truth might be a bit more complicated.

Some people, particularly among the local ethnic Pashtun majority, say the fighting is merely a case of the Northern Alliance - dominated by ethnic Tajiks, Uzbeks and Hazaras - setting out to crush a nearby town of Pashtuns who had decided to run their own affairs.

Indisputable is that Northern Alliance forces have been fighting fiercely during the past few days against a force of about 1,000 opponents near the town of Maydan Shar, along the main highway leading southwest from the capital city. Witnesses have reported heavy machine-gun fire, and shelling by rocket launchers and mortars. Beyond that, you can take your pick of theories on exactly who is doing the fighting, and why.

"The Northern Alliance claimed they were attacking the Taliban, but it was just villagers," said a man calling himself Omar Khan, one of several Pashtuns gathered in the bazaar of the Kabul suburb of Wod Khel. Several others who said they'd recently come from the town backed this account.

Their consensus was that the Pashtun elders of Maydan Shar had met last week in a shoora, or council, after the Taliban's retreat. They decided to govern the town until a new national ruling authority took shape.

Then, Halil Rahman Iqbali said, "The Northern Alliance entered the city by force and the people fought back. A lot of people have been killed."

Both versions might be partly true. The elders of Maydan Shar, while not hard-core enough in their support to have retreated along with Taliban troops, apparently got along fine with the Taliban, whose ruling clique is largely Pashtun.

But another man sitting with the bunch in Wod Khel might have had the most accurate assessment of the current situation. "Everyone is armed," he said, "but no one wants to accept anyone else."

In other words, it is business as usual in Afghanistan, even in areas where the stern five-year tide of the Taliban has receded. Despite the seemingly orderly streets of Kabul, it is a landscape of uncertainty and lingering ethnic tension, a place where events from power outages to mysterious explosions immediately take on political overtones.

Consider the mystery explosion. That was Wednesday, and the explosion was huge. Everyone in town heard it. Even from the opposite side of the city, it was a tremendous, echoing blast, sending up a plume of thin gray smoke visible from miles away. Northern Alliance officials insisted that it was merely child's play gone bad, a grenade fuse that went off when a couple of boys were horsing around. The only casualty: a cut finger.

The word in the street, on the other hand, said it was a rocket attack on the Presidential Palace.

A drive to the scene of the blast - a small guardhouse on the corner of the palace grounds - prompted a knot of Northern Alliance soldiers to hurry forward, motioning away the car.

"It is not permitted," one said. "You must go."

All that was visible by then was a pile of bricks next to a shattered guardhouse wall.

"Just a grenade," the anxious guard said. "Children. A mistake."

While reporters gathered out front, collecting little in the way of reliable information, Ross Chamberlain, a United Nations de-mining coordinator, decided to sneak around the back way.

Chamberlain, a veteran of the Australian army, knows a thing or two about the way certain shells and explosives sound, and he knew this blast had been far too large for any sort of fuse or grenade.

He is also accustomed to the unusual. Just the other day, he'd been called to investigate a report of an unexploded bomb, only to walk in the front door of the house in question and find an NBC news team drinking coffee and having breakfast. Down the hall in the bathroom was a still-intact - and still-lethal - 500-pound American bomb that had tumbled through the ceiling, landing upside down and burrowing a foot into the floor. There was no question what to do: Evacuate.

But at the Presidential Palace, such clarity was in short supply. So were straight answers.

"I couldn't find anything," Chamberlain said. "These guys [in the Northern Alliance] are busy trying to paint a good picture of themselves, so they were telling the press to go away."

One of the few independent observers nearby when the blast occurred was a reporter for The Globe and Mail of Toronto. She reported that soldiers were rushing about in a panic afterward, and that she saw a pool of blood by the destroyed guardhouse before being shoved away.

Then there is the case of Kabul's power failure this week. The power shut down early Monday evening and stayed down for about 24 hours. At first, no explanation was forthcoming from either the Northern Alliance or the United Nations.

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