Savage fighting between an Afghan warlord and his opponents for control of the town of Gardez, south of Kabul, has left at least 43 dead and wounded dozens of soldiers and civilians.
The battle shows the fragile authority of the interim administration, whose leader Hamid Karzai unsuccessfully appealed to Tony Blair in London yesterday to expand the international force in Afghanistan.
Mortar and artillery fire hit Gardez as the forces of Bacha Khan, a warlord with close links to the Afghan government and the US, fought their way into the town, capturing the market, prison and a village. Fighters loyal to the local shura (council) later claimed victory, saying they had captured 200 of Bacha Khan's men in a counter-attack. A spokesman for Bacha Khan admitted that 10 of his men had died in the fighting.
A woman called Fariba, aged 35, fled with her six children, just before her house was shelled. She said: "Now our house is destroyed. We ran away. We were very afraid."
At the local hospital, Dr Najib, who treated 28 people in 24 hours, nine of whom died, said: "The patients are afraid. We are close to the front line here and we are receiving artillery and mortar fire."
The ferocity of the two-day battle in Gardez shows both the inability of the interim government to assert its control outside Kabul and the danger of foreign troops becoming caught up in factional fighting.
Bacha Khan, who started the fighting by attacking Gardez, the impoverished capital of Paktia province, is typical of warlords who have done well out of the defeat of the Taliban. He has close relations with the Northern Alliance, the core of the present administration, and his brother is Minister of Frontier Affairs. He has co-operated closely with US special forces searching for al-Qa'ida.
He is accused by his opponents of falsely telling the US on 21 December that a convoy containing his political rivals on the local shura was made up of al-Qa'ida members. Some 12 shura members were killed in the ensuing US air attack. Despite this, he was made Paktia governor last week. Haji Saifullah, a tribal elder who heads the shura, speaking from his headquarters in northern Gardez, said: "We would never accept him. He is a smuggler and a tyrant and a killer."
Some 30 US special forces soldiers, based at an old fort outside the town, and the Afghan Defence Ministry in Kabul both said they are neutral in the conflict in Paktia. But the fighting, the most severe since the fall of the Taliban, could be repeated elsewhere in Afghanistan, particularly in the Pashtun belt in the south.
Travelling from Kabul to Kandahar at the weekend, Afghans – officials, military commanders and ordinary people – all said they felt insecure because they did not think the anti-Taliban coalition would hold.
In Ghazni city, west of Gardez, Haji Ali Shafi, a car dealer, said: "Everything is quiet here for the moment but gunmen will always quarrel with gunmen. They all want to be governor or the top military commander."
Although senior officials all said they were loyal to Mr Karzai's government, their allegiance is largely verbal. In fact they pick and chose which orders from Kabul they will obey. Qari Baba, the powerful governor of Ghazni province, bitterly complained in an interview that Mohammed Fahim, the Defence Minister and leader of the Northern Alliance, had recently appointed an unacceptable head of security called Raz Mohammed in Ghazni.
"I knew he has once supported the Russians and worked for the KGB," said Qari Baba, 65, a former resistance leader. "I told him to go back to Kabul." Another military commander in Ghazni said a military commission had been formed to put Kabul's appointee in jail if he was caught.
Almost everybody wants the international force in their own provinces, particularly those that are ethnically divided and where Pashtuns, Hazara and Tajiks each have their militias.
While there is no nostalgia for the Taliban, there is little confidence in their mujahedin successors. There is also a growing fear of bandits. Khazai Mohammed, a businessman from Paktika province, said: "Karzai does not look strong enough to impose his strength. Everybody is frightened."
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