Leaders stream into capital for government inauguration

Saturday, December 22, 2001

KABUL, Afghanistan -- Tribal leaders streamed into the Afghan capital on Friday for the inauguration of an interim government that they hope will bring "lasting peace" to a nation torn apart by decades of war.

The 30-member government, taking office today, faces the staggering challenge of rebuilding a nation whose citizens are largely unprepared for a long, hungry winter and whose coffers were left empty by the ousted Taliban regime.

The transfer of power "will be a very big day for Afghanistan, for the people of Afghanistan and for the neighbors of Afghanistan," Ahmed Fawzi, spokesman for the United Nations special envoy, said Friday.

"We are all hoping for a lasting peace," he said.

Peacekeepers enter

Even as the first British peacekeepers entered the capital, Kabul, the U.S. drive to hunt down al-Qaida and Taliban leaders continued. U.S. warplanes destroyed a convoy that the Pentagon said was carrying top members of the two groups. But an official in the capital, Kabul, said the vehicles were bringing prominent Afghans loyal to the new government to the inauguration. A Pakistani news agency reported 65 dead. The Pentagon said there were casualties in the attack near the eastern town of Khost, but did not say how many.

"The intelligence that we gathered at the time indicated to us that this was in fact leadership, and we struck the leadership," Gen. Peter Pace, vice chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, said in Washington.

Khost lies to the southwest of Tora Bora, which was one of al-Qaida's main bases until an assault by Afghan fighters backed by U.S. airstrikes and special forces drove out the group's fighters last week. The forces have been scouring the region's hundreds of caves for traces of Osama bin Laden and his lieutenants.

'Whatever is needed'

Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld said more U.S. troops would be sent to the area to help search the caves. He would not specify how many -- saying only, "whatever is needed" -- and said other coalition troops would also participate.

The caves are "being triaged and put in order," he said. "Then Afghan forces and coalition forces are going into those caves and looking for evidence and people and weapons."

U.S. officials are also working to identify the thousands of Taliban and al-Qaida members that have been captured -- most by anti-Taliban Afghan forces or by Pakistan -- and determine which ones the United States wants to interrogate, Rumsfeld said.

The new government headed by Prime Minister Hamid Karzai has six months to try to put the country on track, a formidable task in a nation whose state-run bank has been looted, where government employees have not been paid in five months and in which most of the infrastructure is in shambles.

Blessings of the king

Karzai, a southern Pashtun tribal leader who carries the blessings of exiled King Mohammad Zaher Shah, must also try to unite a country where loyalties are given to warlords, many of whom have private armies and were heroes of the Afghan war against the Soviets.

After six months, a council of tribal leaders will convene to plan a two-year administration that will take Afghanistan toward a permanent constitution.

A convoy of 80 British Royal Marines entered Kabul on Friday, some escorting returning tribal leaders for the inauguration. It was the first contingent of a multinational peacekeeping mission that will eventually comprise 3,000 to 5,000 troops charged with protecting the new interim government.

In Kabul, some Afghan leaders challenged the international force's mandate. Some members of the interim government say the peacekeepers will not be permitted to use military force, disarm belligerents or interfere in Afghan affairs.

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