Unrest in Afghanistan troubles east and west

Poppy farmers, fighters hamper refugees' return


KABUL, Afghanistan - Fighting in the west and protests in the east yesterday threatened the return of thousands of Afghan refugees from Iran and Pakistan as the U.S.-backed government here showed further signs that it was incapable of asserting its control over large parts of the country.

On the eastern border, hundreds of poppy growers, enraged by a government program to destroy their opium-producing crops, joined in a mass protest.

They blocked the highway from Pakistan and immobilized more than 20,000 people trying to return home from Pakistani refugee camps.

The protests also placed in doubt the viability of the Western-backed plan to prevent the resurgence of Afghanistan as a major exporter of opium.

In the west, fighting between rival warlords hindered the scheduled start of an effort backed by the United Nations to bring home the first of about 2 million Afghans who have been living in camps across the Iranian border.

There were conflicting reports of how many refugees were able to cross the border yesterday, but aid officials expressed concern that continued fighting could discourage the refugees from coming across.

Officials of the interim Afghan government led by Hamid Karzai said yesterday that unidentified fighters had attacked a military patrol in eastern Afghanistan with grenades, killing one person and wounding two.

The Afghan soldiers were working with U.S. forces when they came under attack. The soldiers killed two of their assailants, Afghan officials said in Kabul.

The ambush took place in Paktia province, near the site of the major U.S. military assault on Taliban and al-Qaida hideouts last month.

There have been persistent reports that Taliban and al-Qaida forces, regrouping in the province and across the border in Pakistan, were preparing to mount guerrilla attacks.

On the eastern border, hundreds of poppy growers stopped virtually all traffic entering the country from Pakistan through the Khyber Pass, pelting the few passing cars with stones.

The police dispersed many of the protesters but failed to open the highway, the capital's main road link to the outside world.

Thousands of Afghans, trying to return to their homes after years in refugee camps, poured into the area around the border town of Torkham with nowhere to go.

Most just sat, slept and milled about in the road where they had been stopped.

More than $50 million has been provided, in large part by Britain and the United States, to pay poppy farmers to destroy their crops in the weeks leading up to harvest time.

The program is a last-ditch effort to head off a resurgence of Afghanistan as a major opium producing country.

The problem, conceded by drug control officials here, is that the cash offered by the government is nowhere near what farmers can earn by selling their poppies on the open market.

Along the Iranian border, the repatriation effort was threatened by recent fighting between warlords struggling for control of border checkpoints, a traditional source of revenue for Afghan commanders.

Abdul Karim Barahui, a warlord near Afghanistan's southwestern border with Iran, told the Associated Press that a rival warlord had successfully captured two of his posts in an attack Monday.

Also in Afghanistan yesterday, a British peacekeeper was accidentally shot in the head while patrolling Kabul, the Associated Press reported. The peacekeeper, whose name was not released, was flown out of the country for treatment.

His condition was described as serious.

A spokesman for the international security force would not say whether the bullet was fired from the soldier's gun or one belonging to his colleagues.

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