Factional fighting breaks out west of Afghan capital

Saturday, April 13, 2002

ALA SANG, Afghanistan -- Factional fighting erupted Friday in the hills just west of Kabul -- the latest in a series of Afghan power struggles ahead of a planned national council that will choose a new government.

Meanwhile, south of the capital, U.S. forces seized ammunition caches and captured several al-Qaida suspects.

Mortars flashed from the rocky hillsides and Kalashnikovs crackled in the valley below only 25 miles west of the capital. A tank trundled down the dirt road -- the main one from Kabul to Kandahar -- to provide backup to weary fighters.

The battle began early Friday when Gen. Zafar Uddin moved into the area to take control of checkpoints manned by a local leader named Nangialai, who has designs on the governorship of Wardak province, according to Uddin fighters and government officials.

At least 100 of Nangialai's men mounted a fierce resistance using anti-tank rockets, mortars and Kalashnikov rifles, they said. By sunset, Uddin's 500 men advanced about three miles, capturing two villages and four checkpoints, but still faced heavy fighting.

Zapto Alokozai, a senior federal police official who visited the region Friday, said in Kabul that six of Uddin's men were killed and two of Nangialai's were wounded.

But Uddin said there were no deaths and only one of Nangialai's men was wounded.

Uddin said he captured 20 of Nangialai's men, a figure confirmed by an Interior Ministry spokesman who uses the single name Fridoon.

"Nangialai was a member of the Taliban and he wanted to destabilize the situation in the region," Fridoon said.

He confirmed Uddin's account and said he was carrying out the Defense Ministry orders.

May drag out

Uddin, surveying the battle from a hilltop position with two dozen of his men, said he expected fighting to drag out because he had little backup. He called Nangialai a former Taliban leader who was using caches of Taliban arms to destabilize the interim government.

He said the period of interim government was "an opportunity for us to build our country and let the people of the world contribute. If we start this kind of fighting again, they will not pay any attention to us anymore."

The fighting so close to the capital served as a stark reminder of the immense task facing interim Prime Minister Hamid Karzai as he seeks to consolidate central authority after last year's fall of the Taliban after a U.S.-led bombing campaign.

Turf wars between rival militias threaten to destabilize that government as it seeks to end 23 years of war and prepare for a grand council, or loya jirga, that will choose a new government for Afghanistan in June.

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