Factional violence worsens in Afghanistan

Fierce fighting reported west of Mazar-e Sharif


KABUL, Afghanistan - Western diplomats joined the Afghan interior minister and senior military officials yesterday to try to halt some of the worst fighting the country has seen in almost two years.

Rival factional commanders battled all night with tanks, artillery and mortars in a district 40 miles west of Mazar-e Sharif, the major city of northern Afghanistan.

One faction reported 50 killed and wounded, although the opposing faction put the losses at many fewer. The United Nations, which has a mission in Mazar-e Sharif, confirmed the fighting but was unable to verify casualties.

"It is worse than anything before," said Manoel de Almeida e Silva, a U.N. spokesman in Kabul. "Tanks have been used, which we have not seen in a long time."

Civilians were among the 50 casualties, and dozens of houses and shops were burned, the government-run Bakhtar News Agency reported.

Fighting has occurred across three northern provinces, but the most serious has been in the Faizabad district, just west of Mazar-e Sharif, raging all Wednesday night and into midmorning yesterday.

The fighting has highlighted the dangers still common in Afghanistan, where warlords and local commanders have not been disarmed and are becoming increasingly politicized as the country prepares to adopt a constitution and starts the political process toward elections next year.

It has also demonstrated the weaknesses of the international security effort and of President Hamid Karzai's government, which has sought to co-opt the warlords to keep the peace but has been shown to have very little influence over armed men outside the capital.

The British military has recently established a presence in the north, with 60 soldiers working in a reconstruction team in Mazar-e Sharif. It is part of an international plan to improve security by placing small military and civil affairs teams in key cities.

Tensions began to mount a week ago, when one faction, Junbish-e Milli, commanded by Gen. Abdul Rashid Dostum, captured a group of 15 fighters from another faction, Jamiat-i-Islami, a U.N. official said. The next day, two Junbish commanders were captured and disappeared, he said.

The confrontation has built up since then, but neither the British presence, the United Nations nor the government was able to prevent the outbreak of violence.

The Junbish faction appeared to be behind the outbreak of fighting and has seized control of Maimana, the capital of Fariab province, and of Faizabad, the district in dispute in Jowzjan province.

The fighting overnight could be heard by residents of Mazar-e Sharif, and the regional police chief imposed a 9 p.m. curfew on the city. Shops and schools were closed yesterday, Dostum's deputy Said Nurullah said in a telephone interview.

A government delegation, which included the British ambassador in Kabul and a senior U.N. representative, wrung a cease-fire agreement out of Dostum, an ethnic Uzbek, and his main rival, Gen. Atta Mohammad, a Tajik, Nurullah said.

The leaders agreed to pull their forces back to their bases and return the men to barracks within two days. The interior minister, Ali Ahmad Jalali, promised to send 300 police officers from Kabul to help provide security in Mazar-e Sharif.

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