The conflict intensified yesterday as Hizbe Islami, led by the radical Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, fired hundreds of rockets into Kabul. The government of President Burhanuddin Rabbani said it had beaten back a renewed attempt by the movement to seize southern areas of the capital, from which it was driven out several weeks ago. Rival Sunni and Shia Muslim groups have also clashed in Kabul.
The week-long fighting, described as the heaviest since the collapse of the Najibullah regime in April, has already claimed nearly 1,000 lives. Heavy shelling and several direct hits forced the International Committee for the Red Cross (ICRC) hospital to suspend operations yesterday, a day after two rockets hit the ICRC pharmacy, destroying all drugs and antibiotics and wiping out supplies for local hospitals. An earlier rocket wrecked the organisation's sterilisation unit.
An ICRC spokesman, Jean-Michel Monod, said many of the wounded were dying because of the destruction of medical facilities. 'Most of the deaths are kids with bullets in the legs or injuries that would be simple to operate on,' he said.
The renewed Hizbe Islami onslaught marks the end, at least for the time being, of attempts to reach agreement between Mr Hekmatyar, a Pathan who wants a radical Islamic regime in Afghanistan, and the coalition government in Kabul, which is dominated by Tadjiks and Uzbeks from the north. Although the Prime Minister, Abdul Sabur Farid, is a senior Hizbe Islami man, he left the country before the latest bombardment began.
Mr Hekmatyar himself has remained outside Kabul, refusing to co-operate with the government until it expels the Uzbek militia of General Abdul Rashid Dostam from the capital. The militia, the most effective fighting force in Afghanistan, precipitated President Najibullah's downfall when it switched sides early this year. Its leaders argue that they have been integrated into the country's military structure, and refuse to withdraw, while the government, fearing that the way would be opened for Hizbe Islami to take over, is reluctant to order a pull-out. Its power to do so is debatable in any case.
Although Hizbe Islami is the best- armed of the mujahedin groups, thanks to more than a decade of American and Pakistani support, neither side has the power to land a knock-out blow. This appears to be the only factor preventing a full-scale ethnic war, which could splinter Afghanistan.
Kabul, however, is caught in the middle. More than half a dozen ceasefires have broken down since April, and large areas of the capital have been laid waste. About a million of the 5 million Afghan refugees in Pakistan and Iran have returned home since April, but many are fleeing again. Yesterday thousands of Kabul's inhabitants were reported to be commandeering donkeys, horse-drawn carts and trucks to escape the fighting. The airport has been closed for nearly a week after Hizbe Islami threatened to shoot down any aircraft attempting to take off or land there.
Kabul's traders weathered 14 years of war, during which the capital was relatively unscathed, but half of them have been driven out in the past three months by fighting, looting and political anarchy. The situation has also restricted aid to a trickle, and deterred Western nations from reopening their embassies.
The former president, Najibullah, meanwhile, remains in the United Nations office where he sought refuge in April, waiting until Afghanistan's new rulers have time to settle his fate.