Kabul ceasefire strengthened as Ismaili faction seeks peace

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LEADERS of Afghanistan's minority Ismaili community, who abandoned their traditional neutrality early this year to join the opposition alliance in the country's civil war, are suing for peace after suffering a string of defeats at the hands of the government.

Ahmed Shah Massoud, President Burhanuddin Rabbani's principal military commander, flew north on Tuesday to negotiate with the Ismaili warlord, Syed Jaffar Naseri. His father, Syed Mansour, is the hereditary leader of Afghanistan's Ismailis, who form only 2 per cent of the 18 million population, but who have gained influence in the past by careful manoeuvring. They control most of Baghlan province, which straddles the vital Salang highway.

Why the Naseri family miscalculated so disastrously remains a mystery, but the government has won an important victory by subduing them. The setbacks suffered in the north by anti-government forces make it more likely that the present uneasy peace in Kabul will last, and that a supply route can be found to break the food blockade imposed on the capital since early February. Afghanistan's kaleidoscopic array of factions has been given another shake, this time to the benefit of President Rabbani.

The government has been on the defensive since 1 January, when the Uzbek warlord, Abdul Rashid Dostam, switched sides and launched a devastating attack on Kabul in alliance with the government's main opponent, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar. They were beaten back, but the front line now runs through the heart of the city, and more than 1,200 people are estimated to have been killed in the capital so far this year. Another 400,000 have been displaced.

Mr Hekmatyar, nominally the country's Prime Minister, has threatened to continue bombarding Kabul until President Rabbani resigns with him and fresh elections are held. The food blockade has added to the pressure: while the markets have plenty of smuggled food, up to 800,000 people are too poor to afford it. Relief agencies have been allowed to bring in no more than a trickle of supplies in the past six weeks.

The government also suffered reverses north of the Hindu Kush range, which divides Afghanistan in two. From his stronghold of Mazar Sharif, General Dostam seized the city of Kunduz and persuaded the Ismailis to cut the Salang highway, for much of the year the only link between north and south. Now Mr Massoud has retaken Kunduz and seized towns at the northern end of the Salang pass. Explosions in Mazar Sharif caused United Nations personnel based there to leave so abruptly that they failed to warn other relief bodies.

The expected capitulation of the Ismailis will be another gain for President Rabbani, which may account for the near-cessation of shelling in Kabul since Saturday night. Many people fled the city, fearing a renewed bombardment and a possible ground attack after the three- day Eid festival. The calm continued yesterday, however, as markets reopened and those fortunate enough to have jobs returned to work. There are hopes that Kabul may escape further destruction until the visit later this month of the former Tunisian foreign minister, Mahmoud Mestiri, on a UN fact-finding mission.