Militias take Afghan provincial capital, 10 reported dead

KABUL, Afghanistan (AP) _ Warlords overran a provincial capital in central Afghanistan, officials said Friday, forcing the governor to flee in the latest burst of infighting in this war-fractured nation.

Friday, June 18th 2004, 6:06 am

By: News On 6

KABUL, Afghanistan (AP) _ Warlords overran a provincial capital in central Afghanistan, officials said Friday, forcing the governor to flee in the latest burst of infighting in this war-fractured nation.

The attack, in which 10 people were reportedly killed, highlights the challenges U.S.-backed President Hamid Karzai faces in trying to extend his writ to the countryside. It also was further evidence of slipping security ahead of key elections scheduled for September.

Fighters armed with machine guns and rocket-propelled grenades seized Chagcharan, the main town in remote Ghor province 350 miles west of Kabul, on Thursday, a leader of the offensive and a government official said.

Gov. Mohammed Ibrahim fled to the western city of Herat, leaving his deputy and a group of nominally loyal militiamen and police to regroup in a nearby village.

Din Mohammed Azimi, the governor's deputy, said at least 10 of his men were killed and that the remainder were preparing a counterattack.

But Ghulam Yahya, a former Ghor police chief who claimed Friday he was back in his old job, said he knew of only one fatality.

The fighting followed weeks of tension between allies of provincial military commander Ahmad Murghabi, who also was driven out, and rival tribes over positions in the local administration.

Azimi said a group led by a commander called Rais Salam launched the attack after rejecting an offer of control of four government departments, including police and intelligence.

He said a delegation from Kabul had left Chagcharan on Wednesday.

But it was unclear whose side the central government was on.

Karzai, who returned Friday from a trip to the United States, has vowed to disarm the warlords who still control most of the country more than two years after the fall of the Taliban.

But stalling by powerful regional leaders like Herat Gov. Ismail Khan and Uzbek strongman Abdul Rashid Dostum means only a few thousand of some 100,000 irregular fighters have given up their weapons so far.

Azimi said he had appealed to Defense Minister Mohammed Fahim and other officials in Kabul.

``They promised to help but nothing came. The central government is very weak, it's useless,'' he said, also calling for NATO and the U.S. military to send troops.

A Defense Ministry spokesman said he knew of the incident only from media reports. Other government officials could not be reached for comment.

Yahya described the battle as a ``popular uprising,'' and said a council of tribal leaders would decide how to organize the province's affairs.

``I'm chief of police and Rais Salam has taken over the military headquarters,'' Yahya said.

``We're respecting and listening for the comment of the central government,'' he said. ``The governor is a very good person.''

Karzai diverted hundreds of troops from the new U.S.-trained Afghan National Army to western Herat and the northern province of Faryab earlier this year to calm fighting between warlord factions.

The United Nations said it had pulled election workers out of Chagcharan during Thursday's fighting in another setback to its attempts to register voters.

Farther south, U.N. registration teams have yet to venture into many remote areas for fear of Taliban attacks.

On Friday, gunmen attacked a United Nations refugee office in Kandahar city, sparking a shootout but causing no casualties, an official said.

The attackers fired at least two rockets at the office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, causing some damage to its walls, said Khalid Pashtun, a spokesman for the governor.

Foreign reconstruction and aid agency workers have been a favorite target of insurgents.

Eleven Chinese road contractors were shot and killed in their beds in Kunduz province last week, while five aid workers, including three Europeans, were gunned down June 2 in the remote northwest.

Also Friday, two elite New Zealand troops were injured in central Afghanistan when they were fired on by militants armed with small arms and rockets.

The two soldiers were evacuated by helicopter to a U.S. base in the southern city of Kandahar for treatment, American military spokeswoman Master Sgt. Cindy Beam said. Both were in stable condition.

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