UN fails to secure Kabul ceasefire

THE most senior United Nations envoy to visit Afghanistan since the mujahedin ousted the Communist government two years ago has failed in his attempt to secure a permanent ceasefire in the capital, Kabul. Since April 1992 the city has been all but destroyed and some 12,000 people killed in the struggle for power among mujahedin factions.

Mahmoud Mestiri, a former Tunisian foreign minister, had talks yesterday with the country's nominal Prime Minister, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, who has been bombarding Kabul for months in an attempt to force his main rival, President Burhanuddin Rabbani, to resign. The two sides agreed to cease fighting during Mr Mestiri's visit, and on Saturday Mr Rabbani declared his commitment to a 'permanent and unconditional ceasefire'.

But Mr Hekmatyar gave an ambiguous response yesterday, saying: 'From our side we have already accepted a ceasefire, but the problem is that the other side is not respecting it.' The resignation of Mr Rabbani, he added, 'is a must for peace and reconciliation'.

Speaking at his headquarters at Charasyab, 15 miles south of Kabul, Mr Hekmatyar also rejected the idea of a UN role in the collection of heavy weapons in the capital. Afghan peace delegations have proposed that both sides should hand over their heavy weapons and cede control of the city to a council of local commanders. 'We are not accepting the delivery of weapons to any foreigners,' said the Hizbe Islami leader. 'We prefer that Afghans handle the matter themselves.'

Mr Mestiri is expected to meet President Rabbani's principal military commander, Ahmed Shah Massoud, today and to return to Pakistan tomorrow. His failure to persuade the faction leaders to stop fighting comes as little surprise - they have repeatedly broken previous peace accords - but it was hoped that the UN's higher profile would put more pressure on them to agree to mediation.

Since 1 January, when the Uzbek warlord, Abdul Rashid Dostam, switched to Mr Hekmatyar's side and launched a ground attack against the government, the centre of Kabul has been laid waste and more than 1,000 people killed. The Hizbe Islami leader has also imposed a near-total blockade on food aid to the government side of the city for more than two months, threatening widespread starvation.

The UN evacuated its international staff from the city in January, and has refused to allow them to return. 'They lost their credibility when they left Kabul,' said Aziz Murad, a presidential spokesman. The UN's next move remains unclear, but the Afghan capital now faces continued hostilities at least until July, when President Rabbani will have been in office for two years. Last month, however, Mr Murad said the President's term would be prolonged if the fighting went on.

(Photograph omitted)