Afghan minister's killing sparks violence

More than 100 people have been killed in one of the most serious outbreaks of violence in Afghanistan since the 2001 war.

It began with the assassination of Mirwais Sadiq, son of the warlord Ishmail Khan, who died when his motorcade through the western city of Herat was reportedly hit by a rocket-propelled grenade.

In a move threatening an escalation of the crisis, supporters of Ishmail Khan blamed a representative of the Afghan President, Hamid Karzai, for the killing.

General Zahir Nayebzada, who was recently appointed commander of the Western Province by President Karzai, denied responsibility for Mr Sadiq's death and accused Ishmail Khan of provoking a confrontation with the government by usurping his command. General Nayebzada counterclaimed that Mr Sadiq, the civil aviation minister in the Karzai government, was killed after breaking into his residence.

"He entered my home illegally and the fighting started there," General Nayebzada said. "I did not kill Sadiq in an ambush. He was killed in a clash afterwards. More than 100 people have been killed on both sides, but we are not to blame.''

The fighting between two factions began almost immediately after the assassination and is said to have spread throughout Herat - - the heart of Ishmail Khan's fiefdom. Both sides were reported to be using grenades, mortars and automatic weapons.

A number of civilians were said to be among the casualties, and the injured included Ghulam Sidiq Bakhatyar, Ishmail Khan's chief of intelligence.

A spokesman for Ishmail Khan accused General Nayebzada of carrying out the killing out of "a personal rivalry''. Ghulam Mohammad Masoan added: "Minister Mirwais Sadiq was travelling in his car with two police officers who were killed with him.

"Fighting is going on near the house of the commander and other places.''

The violence comes at a critical time for Afghanistan with talks being held over the formation of a new government, while, at the same time, there has been a resurgence of the Taliban and allied Islamist forces.

Commander Khan, who is known as the Lion of Herat, is seen as being the most powerful of the warlords who are only nominally under the control of the Karzai government. He is said to command a 50,000-strong militia and has been accused of being in collusion with Iran.

President Karzai, with the active backing of the United States and Britain, recently embarked on a campaign to curb the power of the warlords.

Just before Christmas a British mission in Mazar-i-Sharif persuaded another warlord, General Abdul Rashid Dostum, to give up his heavy artillery. A similar mission had been sent by the US to Ishmail Khan in Herat.

Ishmail Khan's whereabouts were a source of confusion last night. A government spokesman in Kabul said he was in the capital, while his supporters claimed that he was in Herat overseeing events. A number of international aid workers are based in Herat; there were no reports of casualties.

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