Gunmen fire on British patrol in second such incident in a week

Thursday, February 21st 2002, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

KABUL, Afghanistan (AP) _ As thousands of Afghans fled hunger, drought and violence in the north, the country's interim leader moved Thursday to play down apparent rifts in his new government. The CIA, meanwhile, warned the seeds are present for renewed civil war.

Thousands of ethnic Pashtuns are fleeing northern Afghanistan, claiming that anti-Taliban commanders have been inciting people to loot their homes and, in some cases, kill them, said U.N. spokesman Yusuf Hassan.

The French aid organization Doctors Without Borders issued an urgent appeal Thursday for more food aid in northern Afghanistan, saying malnutrition, mortality rates and the number of displaced people are all rising sharply.

The struggle to establish order and peace in post-Taliban Afghanistan came up against a new test when gunmen opened fire on a British patrol in the capital, Kabul, and the British returned fire, a peacekeepers' spokesman said Thursday. It was the second such incident in less than a week.

Success in the quest for stability largely depends on whether the interim government can rein in the ethnic, tribal and personal rivalries that have riveted the Central Asian nation of 24 million people for more than two decades.

The cohesion of the government itself came into question this week after interim Prime Minister Hamid Karzai accused senior members of his own administration of assassinating aviation minister Abdul Rahman during a riot last week among would-be Islamic pilgrims at the Kabul airport.

On Wednesday, Foreign Minister Abdullah publicly disavowed Karzai's version of events, saying the angry mob, not government conspirators, killed Rahman. Both Karzai and Abdullah have sought to quell media speculation of a rift inside the government.

The Cabinet is ``extremely united,'' Karzai told Associated Press Television News.

Yet he did not back away from his initial claim of a conspiracy in Rahman's killing.

``The investigation is going on. We know who did it,'' he said.

In recent days about 20,000 Afghans, mostly people fleeing drought, hunger and ethnic strife, have fled to Chaman, a crossing point on the Afghan-Pakistani border, said Hassan, the U.N. spokesman.

``It is a very disturbing picture of gross human rights violations,'' he said. Hassan did not give a breakdown of how many were fleeing ethnic tensions and how many were seeking food.

The Taliban, who were ousted from power last year, were dominated by Pashtuns, Afghanistan's largest ethnic group. The U.S.-backed northern alliance was largely Tajik and Uzbek.

People fleeing northern Afghanistan ``say that commanders in those areas are instigating the locals to rob them and kill and harass the Pashtun population,'' Hassan said.

The United Nations has complained to the interim government, Hassan said, but ``many of those areas are areas where there is no national authority.''

Large parts of Afghanistan are controlled by local warlords. The national government has no army.

Fierce competition among rival warlords raises the prospect of renewed civil war, although probably not in the near term, according to a classified Central Intelligence Agency analysis.

The classified report said that while much of the country has been fairly stable since the Taliban's fall from power, tensions between ethnic Uzbeks and Tajiks in northern Afghanistan and in areas where no leader has emerged represent a danger, said a U.S. official, speaking on the condition of anonymity.

Several U.S. officials familiar with the CIA report, produced this month by agency analysts, said it did not find that civil war was approaching.

``Civil war is not imminent but the seeds are there,'' a senior U.S. official said Thursday, confirming a New York Times report about the analysis.

In Kabul, Jonathan Turner, a spokesman for the 4,500-strong British-led peacekeeping force, said there were no reports of casualties from the Wednesday shooting.

He said British peacekeepers ``had just stopped their vehicles when they were fired upon.'' He added that they fired back.

Last Saturday, members of the same British regiment opened fire on an Afghan car that witnesses say was carrying a pregnant woman. The peacekeepers said they heard gunfire and fired in response. Afghan witnesses say the shooting, which killed a local man, was unprovoked.

In other developments:

_ Ten to 15 people killed in a deadly Jan. 23 commando raid conducted by U.S. special forces in Afghanistan were not al-Qaida or Taliban as first suspected, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld said Thursday. Rumsfeld defended the raid on the two compounds at Khas Uruzgan, saying the deaths occurred after U.S. forces defended themselves when they were fired upon.

_ NATO authorities who raided the Sarajevo office of the Saudi High Commissioner for Aid to Bosnia last fall found computer files containing photographs of terrorist targets and street maps of Washington with government buildings marked, a senior U.S. official disclosed Thursday.

_ Turkish Prime Minister Bulent Ecevit said Thursday that Karzai will visit Turkey next month to discuss Turkey's offer to take command of the international peacekeeping force in Afghanistan.

_ In Los Angeles U.S. District Judge A. Howard Matz dismissed a petition by civil rights advocates who want the Afghan detainees held at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, to be brought before a U.S. court. The judge ruled that the civil rights advocates do not have standing to bring the case, and that even if they did, no U.S. federal court would have jurisdiction to hear it.