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Afghan battles leave 70 dead: Ruling coalition splits further as President Rabbani's forces square up to former ally

KABUL - Hundreds of wounded people poured into hospitals here yesterday as aircraft belonging to forces loyal to the Afghan President, Burhanuddin Rabbani, bombed positions of fighters led by the former Communist General Abdul Rashid Dostam in a second day of battles.

More than 70 people were killed and at least 670 injured in factional battles in Kabul, officials said.

The final toll was likely to be much higher because families were hampered in taking their dead and seriously injured to hospitals because of the intensity of the exchanges of rocket and artillery fire.

The latest battles are the first between President Rabbani and General Dostam, who commands the Uzbek militia and has been based in the northern city of Mazar-i-Sharif since the Islamic coalition government took power in April 1992. The President issued an appeal to other parties in the fractious coalition Islamic government to join forces with him against guerrillas he said were fighting in the cause of the ex-Communist president, Babrak Karmal.

But in Pakistan a spokesman for the radical Hezb-i-Islami party of the Prime Minister, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, said that all groups opposed to Mr Rabbani were fighting the President. Mr Hekmatyar openly despises General Dostam for his leading role in the Communist army, but the two leaders have apparently teamed up in an attempt to oust Mr Rabbani.

Guerrillas of the Shia Hezb-i-Wahdat party, another member of the coalition government, have also thrown their weight behind General Dostam, a spokesman said. No single group is strong enough to topple all the others and the rival parties regularly make and break alliances, seeking to gain the upper hand.

Jets of the presidential forces roared overhead in raids on the ancient Bala Hissar fort, south of the city centre, which is one of the main bases of General Dostam's fighters. No exact toll of deaths was available because bodies were not taken to hospitals during the fiercest rocket and artillery fire in Kabul for six months.

'This is a new phase of the jihad (holy war) that cannot be differentiated from the fighting of the previous 14 years,' the President said, referring to the civil war against the former Soviet-installed government that fell in 1992. 'I have invited all jihadi forces to give a hand to each other.'

Plumes of smoke spiralled above Kabul as thousands of rockets, shells and mortars battered the city, many missing their military targets and ploughing into residential areas. Machine-gun and small-arms skirmishes rattled through the deserted city. Hundreds of rockets were being fired between hilltop positions held by the rival groups around the city. Only a few tanks and taxis raced through the streets.

A presidential spokesman, Abdul Aziz Morad, said Mr Rabbani's forces appeared to have gained the upper hand in some places. He said the President's fighters were meeting pockets of resistance in their capture of the airport, held by General Dostam's forces since the general defected to the guerrillas and helped topple the Communist government.

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