Afghan governor's removal sparks rioting

Warlord's supporters loot U.N. compounds

reports say at least 3 are killed

September 13, 2004|By Kim Barker | Kim Barker,CHICAGO TRIBUNE

KABUL, Afghanistan - Hundreds of people rioted in the western city of Herat yesterday, attacking United Nations offices and shouting anti-American slogans to protest a powerful warlord's removal as provincial governor.

Various news agencies reported that three to eight people were killed and dozens injured in the rioting; Afghan government officials in Kabul had initially insisted that no one had died.

Protests began after Ismail Khan, who ruled Herat province - the country's richest - was removed from his post Saturday and was asked to become the federal minister of mines and industries. He turned down the job.

Demonstrations turned into riots as crowds threw rocks at U.S. soldiers, set two fires and ransacked five U.N. and aid group buildings. Protesters yelled slogans against American troops and U.S.-backed President Hamid Karzai.

At least three U.S. soldiers and one Afghan soldier were injured in the violence.

"Our people have the freedom to demonstrate in a peaceful way," Karzai said at a news conference yesterday. "But if they create problems, destroy shops, they're the enemies of our country."

The deteriorating security situation in Herat poses a problem for Karzai, who faces an Oct. 9 election. He has turned warlords into a campaign issue, and promised Saturday to reel them in. Karzai removed Khan and also the governor of Ghor province.

The moves were supposed to bring stability to Afghanistan's western provinces.

By late yesterday, troops had pushed the protesters into an area of less than a mile. There were two demonstrations last night, which were not violent.

"The city is now mostly calm," the U.S. military said.

Mohammadullah Afzali, a provincial foreign relations official, said Khan's supporters had tried to demonstrate peacefully, but opportunists turned the demonstration into a riot.

Khan, one of the most powerful warlords in Afghanistan, is a hero of the Afghan war against the Soviet Union, a famed fighter with a loyal militia.

As governor, he has been praised for turning Herat into one of the country's nicer cities, largely immune from the Taliban insurgency, with new construction, grass and city services.

But Khan has been blamed for keeping tax dollars that should have been passed on to the central government. He also has been accused of oppressing women and torturing his enemies, and he has resisted disarming his militia.

In recent months, Khan has been accused of endangering his city with his feuds with the government and a rival warlord.

Although Khan rejected the minister's post, he did not oppose the president's decision, Afzali said.

"He was satisfied with the decision of the government," Afzali said. "He has said to his people, his circle of people, that he will go home and never do anything else."

Khan did not publicly support the rioters. He sent his deputies to meet the new governor at Herat's airport yesterday, said Ghulam Hazrat, the spokesman for new Gov. Sayed Mohammed Khairkhwa.

"We were welcomed very well in the airport of Herat," Hazrat said.

Khan said yesterday that he did not want to talk to the media. "The situation is not normal," he said. "Let the situation calm down, and I will talk to you."

In a fresh move to undercut the insurgency by reaching out to former Taliban supporters, hundreds of Pakistanis jailed for fighting alongside the ousted militia were released from an Afghan prison yesterday.

Pakistani officials met the 363 prisoners as they filed out of the Pul-e-Charki jail in Kabul, smiling and clutching plastic bags with a few belongings.

"They could have done this much sooner," Pakistani Ambassador Rustam Shah Mohmand said of the release of the prisoners. "Still, I appreciate it, and the Afghan and Pakistani governments want to have good relations."

The Chicago Tribune is a Tribune Publishing newspaper. The Associated Press contributed to this article.

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