Fighting mars efforts for truce in Afghanistan

Sunday, October 12, 2003

MAZAR-E-SHARIF, Afghanistan -- Tanks and soldiers withdrew from a battlefield in northern Afghanistan on Saturday as rival warlords met to cement a shaky truce threatened by recent skirmishes.

There were no reports of new fighting as Uzbek warlord Abdul Rashid Dostum and his archrival Atta Mohammed met in Mazar-e-Sharif for discussions mediated by Afghan Interior Minister Ali Ahmad Jalali and British ambassador Ron Nash.

The fighting was believed to have been sparked by both sides' desire to control territory belonging to the other. The Afghan government in Kabul has little authority in the countryside, much of which is ruled by warlords and their private militias.

After Saturday's hour-long meeting, Jalali told reporters that despite some minor fighting late Friday, he was optimistic clashes between the two sides had ended and the cease-fire -- signed Thursday -- would stick.

"In some places there were some problems," he said. "But both sides have agreed to solve everything."

Numerous truces between the two forces have fallen apart, and residents feared this one would too.

Commanders for each warlord said the last of their forces had withdrawn from the battlefield, about 20 miles west of Mazar-e-Sharif, where tank and artillery fighting earlier in the week left "high numbers of casualties," according to the United Nations. One of the two sides said that more than 60 died.

"The fighting is over and won't start again," Atta commander Gen. Abdul Sabur said. "There are no more forces on the battlefield."

Jalali said about 300 police officers from Kabul would be deployed to Mazar-e-Sharif in the next two days to "maintain security." He did not elaborate.

The warring factions were members of the northern alliance, which helped U.S.-led forces to topple the hardline Taliban regime in late 2001. But the loose coalition of warlords, while nominally loyal to U.S.-backed President Hamid Karzai, remain split along factional and ethnic lines.

Saturday's peace talks came as Karzai approved the deployment of U.N. teams in the country's north to start disarming militiamen from Oct. 24, according to a government statement.

Program organizers hope that 100,000 fighters will voluntarily surrender their weapons over the three-year campaign. A team is scheduled to be in Mazar-e-Sharif before the year's end.

Disarming the militiamen is essential if the Afghan government is to be able to build and deploy a national army to maintain security. It is also an important step if a NATO-led peacekeeping mission is to expand to regions outside Kabul.

Meanwhile in southern Afghanistan, authorities were searching for more than 40 Taliban prisoners, including several former commanders and the brother of former Taliban defense minister Mullah Ubaidullah who escaped from prison in Kandahar on Friday.

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