Afghan Rebels Engage In Battle for Capital City

Clash between rival groups reflects historic split along ethnic lines

HEAVILY armed mujahideen fighters belonging to rival factions stormed into Kabul, the Afghan capital, Saturday in an effort to capture strategic locations. The event marked a pause, if not an end, to 13 years of war between mujahideen resistance groups and several successive Moscow-aided regimes in Kabul. As word spread across Afghanistan and along the Pakistani border, Afghan tribesmen fired into the air with their captured Russian Kalashnikovs in celebration.

But what appeared to be an initial peaceful surrender of the besieged city has lead to an internal struggle among mujahideen victors. Reports from Kabul confirmed that forces loyal to Ahmed Shah Massoud's Jamiat-i-Islami (Islamic Society) were in control of large parts of Kabul, but the powerful rival leader Gulbuddin Hekmatyar claimed that his men had captured important positions too. A crowd of Mr. Hekmatyar's supporters in Peshawar shouted "God is great," as their leader in Kabul told them by radio th at Kabul had fallen.

Hekmatyar warned other Afghan militia leaders to leave town or face the mujahideen onslaught. Sources from Hekmatyar's Hezb-i-Islami (Islamic Party) in Peshawar said his men were in control of the Interior Ministry building and had briefly occupied a part of the presidential palace. Observers say that Hekmatyar could use his presence in Kabul to resist initiatives for a transfer of power to the Massoud-backed Council of Mujahideen.

Heavy fighting between rebel factions continued yesterday for control of sections of the capital. Administrators at the International Committee of the Red Cross hospital told Reuters they were seeing steadily increasing numbers of wounded, most wounded by small-arms fire and rocket-propelled grenades.

The weekend events left it unclear if a peace formula finalized in Islamabad on Friday would still go ahead, culminating in a transition government. Under the agreement, the 51-member council is due to fly into Kabul sometime this week to take power from members of former President Najibullah's Watan (Homeland) Party.

Hekmatyar has rejected the plan. During a Saturday radio press conference from Kabul, he told reporters in Peshawar that there was no need for such a council because power had already been transferred to the mujahideen.

Shortly afterward, Sibghatullah Mojadedi, who was proposed as head of the council, appointed Mr. Massoud as a defense minister in his Cabinet and as head of security in Kabul.

"The battle lines are now drawn. Either Hekmatyar backs off or there will be a confrontation," said a mujahideen source. But other mujahideen sources sounded more confident that bloodshed could be averted.

"Hekmatyar is more bark than bite," a Western diplomat monitoring events in Afghanistan says. If Massoud is backed by the Afghan Army, along with members of ethnic minorities and the mujahideen council in Peshawar, there is little chance that Hekmatyar will be able to dominate the scene, mujahideen and diplomatic sources say.

The situation in Kabul could still turn messy if there is a clash between opposing sides trying to establish control, the diplomat adds. And since the two main factions are led by rival minorities - Hekmatyar belongs to the dominant Pushtun group; Massoud is a Tajik - Afghanistan could split along ethnic lines.

If Massoud emerges as a powerful figure in the future government, possibly even as head of state, that would alter a 100-year pattern of Pushtun leadership.

According to the estimates of some international relief agencies, among the 16.9 million Afghans remaining in that country, Pushtuns comprise 40 percent, Tajiks 20 percent, Uzbeks and Turkmens another 25 percent, and the Shiite Hazaras 15 percent. An ethnic clash could force a north-south partition with non-Pushtuns in the north and Pushtuns in the south, one official said here recently.

But another Western diplomat says a north-south split is not inevitable. "You have to clear away the political propaganda away from real life," he says, adding that the various communities have coexisted in the past.

Despite these conflicting assessments it is clear that even if warfare is avoided in the near future, ruling the war-torn country will be a challenge.

Afghanistan has a medieval financial system and few natural resources. Years of war have destroyed the land-locked central Asian country's agricultural sector, with only opium production continuing to help rebels buy Western arms, and Afghans now face severe food shortages. Self-sufficiency in food is a distant goal. According to United Nations estimates, there are at least 10 million land mines scattered around the country, which further disrupt agriculture. Nearly 250,000 hectares (100,000 acres) of fo rest have disappeared during the war and an estimated 500,000 farm animals have been killed.

The UN recently launched a worldwide appeal for 100,000 tons of relief supplies, but delivery has been delayed because of ongoing warfare.

Meanwhile, peace efforts are uncertain. If Hekmatyar is brought in with Massoud, observers say, the two may find it difficult to coexist in the government. But if Hekmatyar is kept out, his bark may in fact become a bite.

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