US troops kill warlord's supporters after Karzai sacks 'Lion of Herat'

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The Independent Online

The reign of one of Afghanistan's most powerful and most colourful warlords appeared to have ended in chaos yesterday after a mob of his supporters clashed with American troops and set fire to a UN compound in the Western city of Herat.

The reign of one of Afghanistan's most powerful and most colourful warlords appeared to have ended in chaos yesterday after a mob of his supporters clashed with American troops and set fire to a UN compound in the Western city of Herat.

At least seven supporters of the ousted governor Ismail Khan were killed and 20 wounded in the clashes, as demonstrations were held to protest against Mr Khan's dismissal and UN staff were forced to hide in a bunker.

The so-called Lion of Herat had ruled the city and a swath of surrounding provinces as his personal fiefdom since 2001, making millions of dollars from the lucrative transit trade with Iran and dispensing justice from a court held in his palace.

He was dismissed as governor by President Hamid Karzai on Saturday with US backing in what appears to be a new get-tough policy with warlords less than a month from the country's first presidential elections.

The move was also intended to solve a power struggle in western Afghanistan. Tank battles between private armies began last month when a rival commander nearly overran the city. Mr Khan was only saved then by American intervention after his forces were pushed back almost to the city limits. One militiaman was skinned and several others beheaded in the worst fighting in 12 months, which saw almost 70 deaths.

On Saturday Mr Khan was dramatically dropped by President Karzai, ending months of simmering trouble which began in March when his son was killed in a fight with a rival.

According to the President's office Mr Khan had been "promoted" to Minister of Mines and Industry and replaced with Sayyid Muhammad Khairkhwa, ambassador to Ukraine.

Mr Khan refused the summons to Kabul and said he would remain in the province as a private citizen. Although he said he would accept the President's decision, there were signs that his forces may attempt to fight. A mob of up to 1,000 took to the streets on Saturday night chanting, "Death to America", and "Death to Karzai" before turning on the UN headquarters.

The silver-haired and luxuriantly bearded self-styled emir had a long and dramatic record in Afghan politics, which began when he sparked an anti-Soviet uprising in Herat in which Red Army officers and their families were butchered. He then fought the Taliban, who jailed him for several years before his triumphant return to power in 2001.

Although he has significant local support and ran Herat as the most efficient Afghan city, with rare services such as rubbish collection, he was also reputed to be a religious fundamentalist with views similar to the Taliban. Human rights groups complained that he subjected girls to so-called virginity tests.

It now looks unlikely that he could return to power. For the first time the American military has made it clear that they are backing moves to push out a warlord, and Mr Khan's support is unlikely to prove strong enough to resist determined action by the US-backed Afghan National Army. Several hundred US troops were reportedly attempting to disarm Mr Khan's supporters yesterday.

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