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British peacekeepers exchange fire with attacker in Afghan capital

(KABUL, Afghanistan) - A lone gunman attacked a British observation post in Afghanistan's capital, the third shooting incident involving British troops in two weeks, a spokesman for the international peacekeepers said Thursday.

No injuries were reported in Wednesday's shooting, even though rounds came close enough to leave a bullet hole in the roof of the observation post.

In Europe, meanwhile, U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan urged an extension of the mandate for the British-led peacekeeping force past summer _ saying too quick an exit would risk chaos for Afghanistan.

Signaling the kind of feuding threatening Afghanistan's loosely knit government, tensions flared Thursday between two of the administration's rival commanders in the north _ with one threatening to attack if his rival refused to recall tanks and troops from his territory.

Keeping peace between ethnically divided warlords, despite power and turf battles, stands as one of the largest challenges facing Afghanistan's fledgling government.

The motive for Wednesday's shooting incident was unclear and the gunman got away, officials said.

``One gunman was seen firing, and then he was seen running away, and then he fired again,'' Graham Dunlop, spokesman for the international force, said.

The shooting, like one on Feb. 20, occurred near the rocket-ruined Darulaman palace, a former residence of Afghanistan's royalty.

The most serious shooting involving peacekeepers here occurred Feb. 16, when British peacekeepers fired on a vehicle taking a pregnant woman to the hospital. The vehicle was on the streets after curfew. The woman's brother-in-law was killed.

The peacekeepers said they were returning fire. The woman denied their claim, and Afghanistan's interim administration is investigating.

Two peacekeepers involved in that shooting have since returned to Britain.

In the Feb. 20 shooting, British and Afghans on a joint patrol returned fire after coming under attack, the international force says.

The British lead an 18-country contingent of peacekeepers in Kabul, with a total force of 4,500.

They conduct joint patrols with Afghans in an attempt to provide security in the capital, shattered by two decades of relentless war.

Annan, speaking to German lawmakers in Berlin, urged nations to work for ``a sustainable peace, just as we aim to achieve sustainable development.''

The United Nations is expected to decide by April whether to extend the peacekeeping force's mandate.

Britain is seeking release from the leadership role, but no other country has yet committed to taking on the job.

In northern Afghanistan, ethnic Tajik leader Atta Mohammed accused rival Gen. Rashid Dostum, an ethnic Uzbek, of sending six tanks and dozens of troops into Shulgara, 50 miles southwest of the main northern city of Mazar-e-Sharif.

The move could not be immediately confirmed. Sporadic fighting between soldiers under the control of the two leaders has killed dozens of people in recent weeks.

Atta said he had demanded that Dostum's local commander recall his troops to a Dostum-controlled barracks in the area. If an agreement could not be reached peacefully, Atta warned, he may attack to force Dostum's troops back.

``We are trying to solve it in a brotherly way,'' Atta told The Associated Press. ``But if we cannot, then we must defend our poor people in the village.''

Atta claimed Dostum's troops were harassing Tajiks in the area. Tajiks, Uzbeks and other ethnic groups live together in the district, which is controlled by Atta.

Atta said he had informed government officials in the capital, Kabul, and U.S. special forces representatives in the north about the dispute.

Neither Dostum nor his spokesmen could immediately be reached for comment.

Both leaders are members of the U.N.-brokered interim government of Prime Minister Hamid Karzai, but relations have been rocky between the factions since coalition forces ousted the Taliban.

Earlier this week, Atta and one of Dostum's senior lieutenants signed a peace agreement in another northwestern village where fighting the week before killed at least six people.

In other developments:

_ Claims are arriving daily about the whereabouts of ex-Taliban leader Mullah Mohammed Omar, keeping U.S. search teams ``very busy, day and night,'' said Ahmed Wali Karzai, a military council member in Kandahar, Omar's former stronghold.

Some say Omar's party is in the central mountains, ``then the next day they're in Iran, then Peshawar (Pakistan),'' said Karzai, brother of new Afghan leader Hamid Karzai. No trace of the fugitive cleric has been reported found thus far.

_ Karzai headed into talks with French Prime Minister Lionel Jospin in Paris _ latest stop in the Afghan leader's foreign tours seeking cash and support for Afghanistan's rebuilding.

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