Afghan Cabinet minister's killing sparks deadly fighting

Monday, March 22, 2004

KABUL, Afghanistan -- Soldiers loyal to a local Afghan governor claimed to have retaken control of a western city Monday after fierce factional fighting that killed as many as 100 people, including the country's aviation minister.

Militia commander Zaher Naib Zada, who had accepted blame on behalf of his forces for Sunday's shooting of Aviation Minister Mirwais Sadiq, escaped capture when fighters loyal to Gov. Ismail Khan retook his militia division's barracks in Herat, police chief Zia Mauddin Mahmud said by telephone.

Twenty-five of Zada's fighters were in custody, Mahmud said.

Mahmud said between 50 and 60 people died during hours of fighting with guns, rockets and tanks.

On Sunday, Zada suggested the death toll could be as high as 100. By daybreak Monday, no one was answering Zada's telephone.

"The city of Herat is quiet," Mahmud said.

Sadiq is the third leading figure of Karzai's government, and the second aviation minister, to be killed.

The father of the slain minister, Ismail Khan, is a former anti-Soviet commander who runs a large private army and has had firm control over Herat since the fall of the Taliban in late 2001. But there have been persistent tensions -- and occasional factional fighting -- between his men and those loyal to rival warlords. Sadiq was widely viewed as his father's representative in Karzai's government.

State television had reported that Sadiq's father, Khan, had escaped a separate attack unhurt. The presidential spokes-man and other officials, however, said there had been no attack on Khan.

Gunfire, explosions

Aid workers in the city speaking by phone reported gunfire and heavy explosions and said they had been ordered to stay indoors. U.N. workers scrambled into a bunker at their headquarters.

A police officer, Fahim, reached by telephone at the main police station, gave a different account, saying Sadiq had gone to Zada's residence to ask him about the killing of three civilians by Zada's forces two days earlier.

Karzai's defense and interior ministers were preparing to travel to Herat to try to determine the circumstances of the killing, and the battles that followed, his spokesman said.

The president, who escaped a 2002 attempt on his life, said in a brief statement from Kabul that he was "deeply shocked" by the killing and offered condolences to Ismail Khan.

Karzai's first civil aviation minister, Abdul Rahman, was assassinated Feb. 14, 2002, at Kabul's airport, in circumstances that remain unclear. Gunmen shot and killed Vice President Abdul Qadir in the capital on July 6, 2002.

Both of those killings remain unsolved.

Karzai has been constantly shadowed by Afghan and American bodyguards armed with automatic weapons since a September 2002 assassination attempt in the southern city of Kandahar. Three people, including the gunman, died in that attack.

His government includes an uneasy alliance of former warlords who had joined forces to help the United States rout the former Taliban government. His government still is trying to assert control nationwide, including over Herat and its customs revenue as a major port of entry on the Iranian border.

Respond to this story

Posting a comment requires free registration: