After the war, infighting begins

Rival Afghan militias battle for control of one province as leader pleads for more peacekeepers.

Wrapped in a blanket beneath the sullen winter skies, Badshah Khan is the image of a defeated man. Fifteen of his fighters have been killed, and hundreds, he says, were taken captive after he fell for what he called a "trap" set by his adversaries a day earlier.

Rival warlords seeking control of Paktia Province have battled for two days in this strategic city 80 miles south of Kabul.

Mr. Khan and his fighters stormed Gardez two days ago, after he was appointed governor of the province by interim government Chairman Hamid Karzai. The man who has been in charge of Gardez since the Taliban regime took control of the country in 1996 and since its fall in late November - Saif Ullah - has refused to leave.

This intense fighting is the first between rival Afghan warlords since the Taliban were defeated two months ago. And it portends grave difficulties for the fragile government of Mr. Karzai, as well as for American special forces on the ground attempting to round up remnant Al Qaeda and Taliban members.

Most of the major cities of the country - Mazar-e Sharif, Kandahar, Herat, and Jalalabad - are controlled by different warlords and their tribal militias. Many here fear that infighting among them could lead to an all-out civil war.

Fighters for Khan, from the Zadran tribe of eastern Afghanistan, and Mr. Ullah, who has ties to factions within the Northern Alliance, pounded one another mercilessly yesterday with heavy mortar, tank- and machine-gun fire. Frightened residents fleeing the city describe gruesome scenes of dead fighters massed near the town square beneath the ancient Bala Hisar fort.

Khan says he called Karzai, who was in London asking for additional peacekeeping troops to expand throughout the country, on a satellite phone. He says Karzai directed him to approach the nearby US special forces base and ask for assistance in his fight.

"The US officers have refused to intervene, and so the time for diplomacy is over," Khan says. "This is the time for war, and we have sent word to thousands of our tribesmen to join us in retaking the city."

As he spoke, fighters readied a weapons stockpile that had been captured only days earlier near the Pakistani border.

Though Khan boasted a day earlier that his fighters had cleared much of the city, he says that almost his entire fighting force had been defeated and captured by late yesterday.

Numerous eyewitnesses and Khan related a tale of Afghan deceit and factional fighting that is sure to spill over into neighboring regions without outside intervention.

Khan sent several hundred of his fighters into Gardez - one of the highest-altitude cities in the country located on an ancient caravan route leading to Pakistan - on Wednesday. Ullah permitted Khan's men to pass through previously manned checkpoints. Later, the fighters were permitted to gather - in the hundreds - beneath the ancient fortress that sits on a hill in the center of the city.

But Ullah's fighters, many of the Hazara tribesmen that make up a small minority of the city's population, unleashed a fury of rockets and heavy machinegun fire as the governor's fighters fled for cover into municipal buildings and down small alleys.

In the next 24 hours, as many as 500 of Khan's fighters were disarmed and taken prisoner. Some 200 fighters loyal to the governor gathered on the eastern edge of town yesterday. All of them were downcast as they stockpiled heavy weaponry, and vowed to unleash the fury of the Zadran tribe today.

From the top of a petrol station on the edge of town, a dozen supporters of the governor mingled with backers of the council chief.

Several young boys gasped as a petrol station exploded and plumes of black smoke blanketed the city. The Bela Hisar, a medieval hill fortress, was being smashed by mortars shot by the governor's fighters even as two tanks out in front of the fort blasted back at the attackers.

On both sides of the fighting, elder tribesmen blasted Western powers for what many of them viewed as the start of a civil conflict that, for them, had no apparent end.

Beneath the petrol station, whose mud walls vibrated with massive explosion and rocket fire, an old man, who had just fled the city center, burst into a room. "There are dozens of corpses littering the streets, and I watched seven men bleed to death," says Haji Tur Gul. "We want this stopped. Why don't the Americans bomb these renegades who won't permit our president's governor to enter his own capital?"

Officials in Gardez, loyal to Ullah, claimed that 43 soldiers and civilians had been killed in the fighting. That figure could not be independently confirmed, but Khan claimed 15 of his fighters had been killed.

Early yesterday, US warplanes circled overhead, but by midday they had flown out of sight.

The battle lines, which divide along both factional and ethnic lines, could not have been more confusing for the US military, which is doggedly trying to root out lingering Al Qaeda cells in the region.

As in the nearby city of Khost, former Taliban officials have formed an unusual alliance with Northern Alliance factions, which are believed by most Afghans to be heavily financed by Iran.

Both the former Taliban factions and the Northern Alliance groups - which often field Shia Muslim fighters as opposed to the majority Sunni Muslim population in the country - are allied in their determination to prevent royalists like Khan from regaining power in Afghanistan.

The US military has been trying to work with both sides in the conflict in its efforts to eliminate terror, but the battle in Gardez now threatens to derail those efforts in eastern Afghanistan, which is believed to have hundreds, if not thousands, of renegade Al Qaeda fighters roaming in the mountains.

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