UN sends mission to prevent collapse of Karzai regime

The UN Security Council sent a high-ranking delegation to Afghanistan yesterday to bolster the country's leader, Hamid Karzai, amid signs that his authority is steadily slipping to powerful warlords and warnings that an opium boom could turn Afghanistan into a failed state run by drug cartels.

The delegation, including the UN ambassadors of the United States, Britain, France, Mexico, Spain and Bulgaria, are aiming to demonstrate the international community's commitment to rebuilding the country, said the head of the mission, Germany's UN ambassador Gunter Pleuger.

The ambassadors are to visit Herat and Mazar-i-Sharif, he said, to pressure powerful regional warlords "to co-operate fully with the central government" so elections next year can be held in a climate of stability. "We will speak to the local warlords and call to their attention the responsibility for the whole country demanded from them, that they work together with the central government, economically, politically and above all for security," he said.

But even as he spoke, there were reports of further violence. Two civilians were killed in clashes between rival militias. And there were unconfirmed reports that eight villagers had died in an airstrike on a remote eastern village. The strike hit a house belonging to Mawlawi Rabbani, a prominent local cleric who is said to have co-operated with the US-led coalition.

The finishing touches are being put to the country's first post-Taliban constitution. The terms of the document are to be debated at a constitutional convention next month. The draft document could be released within days.

But prospects of a smooth transition to democracy are bleak, with much of Afghan-istan still ruled by competing warlords and their private armies. Last month, the Security Council approved an expansion of the 5,500-member Nato-led military force outside the capital. A German advance team is preparing for the arrival of a 450-strong mission in the northern city of Kunduz. But no country has yet volunteered troops for an expanded mission to other parts of Afghanistan where the risk would be considerably higher.

More than 350 people have been killed across Afghanistan in the past three months, the worst period for violent deaths since the Taliban's collapse. Civilians, US soldiers, Afghan troops, police and local aid workers have been targeted.

The UN delegation will avoid Kandahar, the former Taliban stronghold, because of the unrest. Pashtun leaders from that region will travel to Kabul to voice their views to the ambassadors.

Taliban insurgents in Kandahar threatened to kill a kidnapped Turkish engineer yesterday unless the authorities release 18 Taliban prisoners. The engineer, Hasan Onal, had been returning to a camp for workers repairing the Kabul to Kandahar highway.

Tension is also high around Mazar-i-Sharif, between the Uzbek leader General Abdul Rashid Dostum and his Tajik rival, General Atta Mohammed. They were key figures in the Northern Alliance that worked with the American-led coalition to invade and oust the Taliban from power in late 2001.

A military clash between the two factions last month led to 60 deaths. In more recent clashes, at least three soldiers and two civilians have died.

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