Afghan warlords battle for control of Paktia province
Fighting most serious since Taliban's collapse

The News International, January 31, 2002

GARDEZ, Afghanistan: Heavy fighting erupted here on Wednesday as rival warlords battled for control of eastern Paktia province, fuelling fears that Afghanistan could descend into factional chaos.

US warplanes were seen circling over Gardez as mortar and small arms fire rocked the rural town of some 50,000 people, and residents fled on foot and in trucks. The fighting appeared to be concentrated on the governor's mansion, where flashes of mortar explosions and flames lit up the sky as night fell, an AFP reporter on the outskirts of the town said.

Fleeing residents said men loyal to rival ethnic Pushtun warlords Padsha Khan and Saifullah began fighting around midday. Khan was recently appointed by Karzai to take up the governorship of Paktia province, bordering Pakistan. However, Saifullah a supporter of former president Burhanuddin Rabbani, had already taken control of Gardez, around 100 kilometres south of Kabul, following the withdrawal of the Taliban.

Khan told AFP around 8:00 pm (1530 GMT) he had sent 800 fighters into Gardez and they had captured most of the town. He said some of his fighters had been killed and injured but he could not say how many. The fighting appeared to be the most serious outbreak of violence between rival tribal leaders in Afghanistan since the Taliban collapsed and the UN-backed interim government was put in place last month.

The latest fighting broke out a day after Khan said he was planning to launch an attack on up to 1,200 al-Qaeda members he claims have regrouped in mountains in eastern Paktia province. Khan also said al-Qaeda and former Taliban fighters had joined forces with Saif.

Whereas a member of the Gardez tribal council claimed about 300 fighters -- both Taliban and members of al-Qaeda -- are poised to launch an assault to the west of Gardez, in the Shahi Koot region of Zormat district. "They have light and heavy weapons and have a plan to attack Gardez adding that top Taliban commander Jalaluddin Haqqani was massing forces and planning the "imminent" offensive, said Abdul Wali, a member of the tribal council.

He said the Gardez tribal council had told US special forces based in the town about the threat. "We are in contact with them about the matter. We are also talking among each other what to do," he told Reuters by satellite telephone.

"American forces patrol Gardez and the main road leading to Kabul. They are aware about the threat from the Taliban and al-Qaeda." Wali accused Pakistan of arming and encouraging the Taliban and al-Qaeda to stage the attack on Gardez to destabilise the interim government.

A tribal leader in Khost loyal to the interim government said Taliban and al-Qaeda fighters were still in the rugged mountains near the Pakistani border despite sustained US bombing of the area earlier this month.

"The (US) raids have come to a halt but the Taliban and Osama's people go to Pakistan when the bombing starts and once the attacks stop, they come back. They are still there," said Kamal Khan, a member of the Khost tribal council.

Meanwhile Kandahar Governor Gul Agha , in a bid to ease simmering ethnic and regional tensions has sent a delegation of elders to western Herat province, a spokesman said on Wednesday. Also on Wednesday, Afghan warlord Ismail Khan, in control of much of the west of the country, denied US charges that neighbouring Iran was trying to destabilise the fledgling interim government. He said there was no evidence that fleeing al-Qaeda fighters were being allowed into Iran. "Iran has not interfered in the internal affairs of Afghanistan and this information is completely untrue," Khan told Reuters in an interview.

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