Archive for Sunday, February 10, 2002

around key city

February 10, 2002

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— An Afghan warlord who led the worst factional warfare since the fall of the Taliban vowed to fight on Sunday rather than step down as governor while warlords in northern Afghanistan agreed to create a "security belt" to keep unauthorized weapons out of the north's largest city.

Travelers to Mazar-e-Sharif will have to check their weapons upon entering - getting them back only on the way out - under a new plan reminiscent of stories about taming the American Wild West. Checkpoints encircling the city will keep out guns under a pact by warlords to create a security force run by the central government, not local militias, an official said Sunday.

Since the fall of the Taliban in November, regional warlords have been reasserting their authority in several regions. The interim government led by Hamid Karzai has been working to extend its influence and reduce the warlords' role.

Yet with no national army, Karzai's administration has little power to impose peace on feuding warlords with private militias.

With a bandoleer of bullets across his chest, warlord Bacha Khan said he has 6,000 fighters ready to do battle again with forces loyal to the town council, or shura, of Gardez, who oppose his appointment as governor of surrounding Paktia province south of Kabul.

"They are no town council," Khan thundered. "They are an al-Qaida council and a Taliban council."

He added: "We are ready to fight al-Qaida today, tomorrow or any time."

Gardez shura leaders deny being al-Qaida or Taliban members and accuse Khan of being unscrupulous and corrupt.

Fighting between the two sides in January killed at least 60 people. The town council's refusal to accept Khan, whose appointment was confirmed by the government only after he had declared himself governor, threatens efforts by Karzai's administration to extend its authority.

The fighting ended with a ceasefire. Khan and shura members held talks with the government in Kabul, the capital, this weekend to seek a longer-term solution.

But Khan, speaking at a press conference after the talks, said he would not step down if Karzai appoints another governor.

The efforts to extend the central government's authority continued as refugees in Pakistan on Sunday revealed the arrest of a prominent Taliban official. The reported arrest coincided with Friday's surrender of Taliban Foreign Minister Mullah Wakil Ahmed Muttawakil, the highest Taliban official known to be in custody.

Mullah Siddiqulla, a one-legged senior official in the Taliban's Irrigation Ministry, was arrested by Pakistani security officials Friday at the Harkat refugee camp near Peshawar, close to the border with Afghanistan, refugees at the camp said Sunday.

Pakistani officials refused to confirm the arrest.

Afghan authorities say Muttawakil, now held by the U.S. military, should be put on trial to answer for crimes committed during the Islamic militia's rule.

As a former Cabinet minister, Muttawakil could provide information about the movements of al-Qaida chief Osama bin Laden and Taliban leader Mullah Mohammed Omar in the regime's final days. Both men remain at large.

"This is a moment that we have been waiting for - to make sure that these individuals face trial, either in Afghanistan or outside Afghanistan, for their actions and deeds in the past," said Omar Samad, an Afghan Foreign Ministry spokesman.

Meanwhile, Kandahar province's governor said Afghans will accompany U.S. forces on some future operations to avoid a repeat of the commando raid north of Kandahar last month when U.S. troops captured the wrong people and, Afghans allege, killed a number of innocents.

"To avoid any misguided military operation, we have made it a rule that in any future U.S. operation which is conducted on the basis of local Afghan intelligence, people from Kandahar administration would be included," Gov. Gul Agha said.

The Pentagon first said the Jan. 23 raid was an attack on an al-Qaida weapons dump, and that troops killed about 15 people and captured 27 Taliban and al-Qaida members. But after Afghans complained that they were wrongly targeted, the U.S. military acknowledged that none of the 27 prisoners was al-Qaida or Taliban and released them.

The United States says it is investigating whether any of those killed also were the wrong people.

A reinforced "security belt" around Mazar-e-Sharif was among the new elements hammered out in a high-level meeting of the area's three main militias, said Sayed Noorullah, head of the interim government's foreign affairs office for northern Afghanistan.

Envoys agreed last week to withdraw their fighters from the city and create a 600-member security force under the interim government. The latest meeting was intended to draw in the faction's leaders, including ethnic Uzbek commander Gen. Rashid Dostum and ethnic Tajik chief Atta Mohammad.

The third leader, Mohammad Mohaqqeq of a Shiite Muslim bloc, did not attend the session but sent a deputy, Noorullah said. All three leaders have posts in the interim government cabinet.

Meanwhile, in a possible conciliatory gesture to the United States, Iran closed the offices of former Afghan warlord Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, a former Afghan prime minister living in exile in Iran who has opposed the interim Afghan government, one of his aides said Sunday.

Iranian officials did not immediately respond to a request for comment. Washington has accused Iran of trying to destabilize Afghanistan's fledgling administration, saying Tehran gives refuge to anti-government figures or supports them in Afghanistan. Iran has denied the accusations.

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