Rebels offer Kabul leaders brief respite

AFGHAN rebels who have been pounding Kabul relentlessly with artillery and rocket fire over the past two weeks promised to lift the siege of the Afghan capital.

But a spokesman for the rebel chief Gulbuddin Hekmatyar said today's truce will last for only 72 hours and may end sooner if the battered Kabul government tries to rush in extra militia.

A delegation from three eastern Afghan provinces has been trying for more than a week to reach a settlement between the Islamic leadership and Mr Hekmatyar's Hizbe Islami, which was expelled from the government earlier this month. The head of the delegation, Commander Shomali, said he was confident that the group was on the verge of reaching a truce between President Burhanuddin Rabbini's government and Mr Hekmatyar. Pakistan was also sending a delegation to Kabul to try to negotiate a ceasefire.

Many Afghans doubt that this truce will survive the weekend, even though there is less of Kabul with each passing day to quarrel over. After uniting to topple the pro-Soviet regime four months ago, the mujahedin victors are now engaged in a murderous power struggle. More citizens of Kabul have died since the mujahedin took power than during the 14 years of civil war.

Afghanistan is on the verge of extinguishing itself. Some diplomats warn that this instability, unchecked, could spill into neighbouring Pakistan, Iran and the Central Asian republics.

The latest peace mission faces a difficult task. Mr Hekmatyar possesses a huge stockpile of arms supplied by the CIA. He is trying to rally the Pathan tribesmen from south and central Afghanistan against their traditional enemies, the Uzbeks, the Tajiks and the Hazaras, who now control Kabul. Mr Hekmatyar said that no cease- fire can hold unless President Rabbani pulls out the 75,000 Uzbek fighters guarding Kabul.

Mr Rabbani cannot comply. Without the Uzbeks, Kabul's defences could easily be pierced by Mr Hekmatyar's tanks. Iran, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia are also reportedly arming various fighters for their own religious and strategic purposes, adding to the chaos in Afghanistan.

In Kabul, entire neighbourhoods have been flattened during Mr Hekmatyar's siege, and the death toll has passed 2,000, according to relief workers. The rebels reportedly have more than 40 tanks and cannons aimed on Kabul from the mountains.

So far, more than 150,000 Afghans have fled the capital; roads heading north and east from Kabul are clogged with families escaping the bombardment. 'From a hill, I watched all day as the shells and rockets fell on Kabul,' said Reinout Wanrooy, an official with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. 'It stopped at sunset for just 15 minutes - prayertime for the rebels.'

Under the rebel siege, law and order has collapsed in Kabul. Rival militias man roadblocks, robbing citizens from other ethnic groups. 'They're all doing it - the Uzbeks, the Hazaras, the Tajiks, the Pashtuns (Pathans). Nobody can stop them,' said an expatriate worker.

There are also reports that militias belonging to the Hazara tribe are refusing to let Pathans flee, according to foreign aid workers.

Electricity, water and telephone lines have been cut for two weeks in Kabul, and food grows scarce. Three days ago a rocket hit the Red Cross hospital's pharmacy, destroying most of its medical supplies. Most diplomats have been evacuated, depriving Mr Rabbani's shattered government of any international support or credibility.

A deadly stalemate now reigns. Mr Rabbani's forces lack the strength to dislodge the rebel forces from the mountains. But Mr Hekmatyar does not have the power to capture Kabul. Even if he did, some observers say, he could not stop Afghanistan from shattering into a mosaic of ethnic and religious fragments.

Mr Hekmatyar's support among the Pathans, the dominant tribe which has ruled Afghanistan for more than 250 years, is not solid; the country's other powerful ethnic groups hate and fear him. His fierce brand of Sunni fundamentalism made him enemies among Afghanistan's many Shias and also those ruling in neighbouring Iran.

KABUL - Rebel fighters fired 14 rockets at the Russian embassy yesterday, wounding two people, AP reports. Moscow reversed an earlier decision and said it would close its mission in Kabul, diplomats said.