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Afghan defense ministry sees U.N. peacekeepers as symbolic
KABUL, Afghanistan (AP) -- Barely 24 hours before the first British peacekeepers deploy in the Afghan capital, the incoming defense minister said Thursday the international troops may not use force, indicating deep differences with the United Nations over their mission and size.
Interim Defense Minister Mohammed Fahim told The Associated Press that the multinational force will be largely symbolic -- in comments that also pointed to divisions within Afghanistan's new administration just before it is to be inaugurated over the weekend.
As the United Nations prepared for the installation of the post-Taliban administration, American special forces and Afghan tribal fighters were going cave to cave in northeastern Afghanistan hunting for traces of Osama bin Laden's al-Qaida terror network.
American soldiers were seen in the mountains of Tora Bora going through documents and other materials, apparently recovered from caves in the area, which was an al-Qaida bastion until it was abandoned on Monday after weeks of fighting.
Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld said U.S. forces were helping Afghan tribal fighters clear caves "one by one" in the Tora Bora. He said the work is slow and difficult, complicated by bad weather and darkness.
The whereabouts of bin Laden -- who some had placed at Tora Bora -- was unknown. After the assault by tribal fighters backed by U.S. bombardment, al-Qaida fighters fled Tora Bora, many crossing the nearby border into Pakistan.
Pakistani forces on Wednesday were pursuing the last five of 48 al-Qaida fighters from Tora Bora who broke free of their Pakistani guards Wednesday after they were arrested crossing the border. As many as 12 of the fighters and six guards have been killed in gunbattles, while the rest of the al-Qaida men have been recaptured.
Pakistan has captured dozens of al-Qaida followers who fled Tora Bora, just across the border. Rumsfeld said interrogations of the prisoners should yield a "treasure trove" of leads for hunting down bin Laden and eradicating al-Qaida.
British Prime Minister Tony Blair said Thursday that the peacekeeping force his country is leading will remain "quite distinct" from forces still engaged in fighting the remains of the Taliban and al-Qaida or in the search for their leaders.
The first British troops are expected to move into the capital Friday, a day before interim prime minister Hamid Karzai and his government are sworn in. A British Embassy spokesman in Kabul, Paul Sykes, said roughly 70 British peacekeepers would be in the initial deployment, though some Western diplomats put the number at around 165.
The U.N. Security Council is expected Thursday to approve a resolution for a peacekeeping force of 1,000 troops, which likely would grow to 5,000. The resolution also gives peacekeepers the right to use military force if necessary. Karzai and other government members have welcomed a more powerful role for the peacekeepers.
But Fahim's comments pointed to the difficulties facing the foreign troops entering a country trying to cobble numerous armed factions into a viable government.
Fahim -- a member of the faction that controls Kabul -- said the international force will eventually number only 3,000 troops. Only a third of those will have a peacekeeping role, and they will not be allowed to disarm belligerents or interfere in Afghan affairs, he said.
"They are here because they want to be. But their presence is as a symbol," Fahim said of the peacekeepers. "The security is the responsibility of Afghans."
The remaining two-thirds of the force will assist with humanitarian aid and as a reserve, out of sight at the Baghram air base north of the capital, Fahim said. The goal of the force, he said, was to reassure foreign donors and encourage relief efforts.
Peacekeepers will have no authority to disarm belligerents, interfere in Afghan affairs or use force, he said.
"They have no right to disarm anyone," Fahim said. "Some ministers in the new government who have always lived outside the country are worried about security and they feel they need the peacekeepers for protection, but when they arrive here they will see that the situation is OK and that it is not necessary."
He suggested an armed Afghan police force would take the larger role in keeping security. "The peacekeepers can patrol if they want to," he said.
The heavily armed units of northern alliance soldiers who swept into Kabul will be withdrawn from the streets, but they will not leave the capital, Fahim said. The Afghan troops will return to barracks, many of which are located in the heart of the city.
It was not clear whether that would contravene the U.N.-brokered agreement signed in Germany this month to create the new government. Under that deal, all Afghan military units are to withdraw "from Kabul and other urban centers or other areas in which the U.N.-mandated force is deployed."
Many ordinary Afghans also want peacekeepers to prevent the groups that make up the northern alliance from returning to the bitter feuding that marked their 1992-96 rule, in which they destroyed entire Kabul neighborhoods and killed 50,000 people, most of them civilians
Fahim said that wouldn't happen again, although it wasn't clear why he was so certain. Many of the groups who make up the alliance are already bickering over the distribution of ministries in the new interim Cabinet.
Karzai, an ethnic Pashtun leader who heads southern Afghanistan's Popolzai tribe, will take the mantle of power from Burhanuddin Rabbani -- who was president before the Taliban took power in 1996 -- in the first peaceful transfer of power in Afghanistan in decades.