Afghan official says peacekeepers will be restricted

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The Independent Online

Only one third of the international peacekeepers arriving in Afghanistan will have an actual peacekeeping role and even they won't have authority to make arrests or disarm Afghans, the nation's incoming defense minister said. Across the border, Pakistani forces battled an insurrection by Afghan war prisoners that has left as many as 18 dead.

The comments in Kabul by interim Defense Minister Mohammed Fahim exposed sharp differences with the United Nations – and within the new Afghan government – over the peacekeepers' role. The interim government takes office on Saturday.

Fahim said the peacekeepers' role will be largely symbolic, with 2,000 of the 3,000 peacekeepers on humanitarian aid missions or as a reserve force, out of sight at the Baghram air base north of the capital.

"They are here because they want to be. But their presence is as a symbol," Fahim told The Associated Press. "The security is the responsibility of Afghans."

In Pakistan, paramilitary forces captured all but five al–Qaida prisoners who overpowered their guards Wednesday and sprinted for freedom. At least six guards and as many as 12 fighters were dead, including two killed in a clash with security officers early Thursday, residents of the town of Parachinar said.

Their reports could not be independently verified because paramilitary forces had roadblocks every 10 kilometers (6 miles) on all routes to Parachinar. Government officials in the remote tribal region and in the capital, Islamabad, refused to comment Thursday.

Sabir Ahmed, a local government official, said at a checkpoint 20 miles (36 kilometers) from Parachinar that about 10 men had been arrested Thursday, and only five remained on the run.

"The search is going on," he said.

The government said prisoners commandeered a bus that was transferring them to a larger prison in the town of Kohar on Wednesday, but lost control and overturned the vehicle. Seven Arabs died in the struggle, and all six guards were killed, it said. Three more Arabs later died of their wounds, the Pakistani news agency Afghan Islamic Press said.

Some of the dead were buried Thursday in the village of Bugzai, said Faiz Mohammed, a shopkeeper reached by telephone. He said the men still on the run would be difficult to capture.

"I don't think they will surrender easily," he said.

Trucks mounted with machine guns patrolled the roads and barren hills along the border, blocking the entry into Pakistan of al–Qaida fighters from Afghanistan.

The prisoners who revolted were among 156 captured earlier this week. They were driven out of cave hide–outs in the Tora Bora region after weeks of unrelenting U.S. bombing and ground attacks by tribal Afghan fighters backed by U.S. and British special forces.

Tora Bora was one of the last pockets of al–Qaida resistance in Afghanistan, where a U.S.–led bombing campaign helped opposition fighters drive the Taliban – targeted for sheltering Sept. 11 suspect and al–Qaida chief Osama bin Laden – from power.

Fahim said all Afghan troops in Kabul will return to their barracks but will remain in the capital. But in a U.N.–brokered agreement signed in Germany this month, the new Afghan regime pledges "to withdraw all military units from Kabul and other urban centers or other areas in which the U.N.–mandated force is deployed."

The U.N. troops "have no right to disarm anyone," Fahim said. "Some ministers in the new government who have always lived outside the country are worried about security and they feel they need the peacekeepers for protection, but when they arrive here they will see that the situation is OK and that it is not necessary."

A draft U.N. resolution authorizes the peacekeepers to use military force if necessary. Other officials of the new Afghan government – including interim Prime Minister Hamid Karzai – have welcomed the peacekeeping force and accepted that it will enforce security in the capital.

The U.N. Security Council was expected to vote on dispatching the force later Thursday.

The peacekeeping force was established in principle Dec. 5 as part of an agreement reached in Germany among Afghan factions that also set up the interim government, and a transitional government to follow.

Around the Tora Bora cave and tunnel complex, U.S. Special Forces backed by helicopters and high–flying reconnaissance aircraft, searched for al–Qaida survivors. Al–Qaida defenses collapsed Monday, with fighters abandoning caves stacked with weapons, ammunition and Arabic–language documents.

A B–52 bomber left a cloverleaf–patterned contrail high overhead, in position to drop high–precision bombs on any fighters spotted running.

Eleven weeks after the U.S.–led coalition launched military action in Afghanistan, there was still no trace of bin Laden, whom unconfirmed reports had earlier placed around Tora Bora.

"I don't know if he is still in the Tora Bora area, if he's been injured or killed, or if he has left Afghanistan," said Gen. Richard Myers, chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff.

Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld said the administration was concerned al–Qaida fighters could escape Afghanistan to plan more terrorism.

"I think it would be a mistake to say al–Qaida is finished in Afghanistan at this stage," Rumsfeld said.

Few top Taliban and al–Qaida leaders have been caught, and it was unclear how many were killed in U.S. airstrikes.