It was not clear whether the pause was a result of an offer by the hardline Hizbe Islami leader, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, of a one- day ceasefire to allow foreigners to leave Kabul, or whether the government's claims to have driven back his forces were true.
Since last Saturday Hizbe Islami, shedding previous restraint, has fired hundreds of rockets and shells into the city, reducing large areas of the capital to rubble, destroying stocks of food and medicine and knocking out communications, power and water supplies. On Thursday, rockets with cluster explosives were used for the first time, killing more than 80 people in a single attack near Chicken Street, the main shopping area.
The carnage has intensified international pressure for negotiations, including appeals from the United Nations and the Islamic Conference Organisation. Yesterday another was being prepared by the European Community. Apart from calling for talks, said one diplomat, the statement would imply that 'the people who have influence - Afghanistan's neighbours and Saudi Arabia - should use it'.
Pakistan favoured Mr Hekmatyar, a Pathan, during the years it played host to the exiled mujahedin leadership, but now Islamabad fears that his onslaught could split the country on ethnic lines. That in turn might lead the Pathans of south and east Afghanistan to seek union with their fellow tribesmen in Pakistan.
Yesterday the Pakistani Prime Minister, Nawaz Sharif, condemned the 'senseless and indiscriminate' rocket attacks on Kabul, and said his country would not allow its territory to be used by 'unscrupulous elements engaged in undermining the territorial integrity of Afghanistan'.
The Hizbe Islami leader is reported to have acquired a new backer, however, in Saudi Arabia, which may be seeking to counterbalance Iran's influence in Afghanistan and central Asia. The deputy KGB chief in the Persian- speaking former Soviet republic of Tajikistan has accused Hizbe Islami of training Muslim militants seeking to overthrow the republic's government, which is controlled by ex-Communists.
This week's bombardment of Kabul is viewed by foreign diplomats and many Afghans as marking a decisive change from the holy war against Communism and Soviet occupation to an all-out struggle for power among the mujahedin, one which is bound to acquire ethnic overtones. Others argue, however, that the factions are aware of this danger, and are still holding back to some extent.
'Hizbe Islami is actually aiming at specific targets in Kabul, such as the airport, broadcasting facilities and the forces of the former regime, but they lack the technology to hit them with total accuracy,' said a Western diplomat. 'It must also be admitted that they are not too concerned who gets hurt.
'At the same time, the government seems to fear the political consequences of trying to wipe out Hekmatyar's movement entirely. It has attacked his forces from the air, but does not seem to have launched a ground offensive.
'Sooner or later the factions will have to negotiate, but for the moment there is no political momentum. The longer this goes on, the more bad blood there will be.'Reuse content