Words of peace spell war for Kabul

IN Afghanistan, whenever the word 'ceasefire' is said aloud, someone reaches for a rocket-launcher. On Tuesday, a four-day truce was called by the Afghan government and the warring rebel factions to let food and medical supplies into Kabul, which has been under virtual siege since New Year's Day.

Judging by the brevity of most other Afghan ceasefires, the United Nations and relief organisations decided it was too risky to move supplies by convoy along the road from Pakistan into the shattered capital.

It was a wise move. On Wednesday fighting flared up again, with the rebel forces - an uneasy alliance between the renegade Prime Minister, Islamic hardliner Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, and the former Communist Uzbek general, Abdul Rashid Dostam - pounding Kabul with more than 70 rockets.

'The intensity of the fighting is worse than Sarajevo,' said a relief worker in Islamabad. The Red Cross puts the toll of the past month and a half of fighting at 12,000 injured and more than 600 dead. Wednesday's barrage killed 13 people and injured 17, an average day's carnage for the Afghan capital.

With Kabul hit by snow and food shortages, aid organisations are warning of a possible famine for those trapped in the besieged city. Sotirios Mousouris, a UN special envoy, said from Islamabad: 'Soon famine will envelop those remaining innocent civilians in Kabul.' He appealed to Mr Hekmatyar's faction to lift its blockade around Kabul and allow food and supplies through from Jalalabad, the main staging-point for relief operations, a day's journey north of the capital.

Afghanistan has fallen off our map of conscience, not only because it is far away and no longer the rocky arena of Cold War clashes, but because the Afghans seem bent on tearing their country to pieces. They have violated all peace agreements brokered by outsiders. Since the pro- Moscow Najibullah regime was overthrown in 1992, the Muslim guerrilla factions that seized power have done little but blast away at each other with the ultimate in CIA-supplied weaponry.

Consider this example of Afghan duplicity: although chosen as Prime Minister, Mr Hekmatyar refused to enter Kabul and take office and demanded that General Dostam pull out his men from the city's airport and the old British fort dominating the southern roads to Kabul.

In this latest round of fighting, General Dostam deserted the President, Burhanuddin Rabbani, and sided with his old enemy, Mr Hekmatyar. Now Afghan air force planes under General Dostam's command are taking off from a base near Mazar-e- Sharif, in the north, to bomb Kabul.

More than 60,000 Afghans have fled Kabul for tent cities near Jalalabad. 'It's cold, and they're starving,' said one relief worker. 'The fields near the camps are covered with mines. Many of the refugees wander off, hunting for firewood and never come back.' There is nowhere else to go. Pakistan has sealed its borders to prevent more refugees flooding across.