The worst fighting in months has broken out between rival warlords in northern Afghanistan, a government spokesman said yesterday. One of the warring sides said the death toll was 60, while the other said it was much lower.
The fighting was about 50km west of the northern city of Mazar-e-Sharif. Residents there said they saw tanks and other heavy weaponry heading out of town yesterday, but there was no fighting in the city itself.
Afghan Interior Minister Ali Ahmad Jalali said he and other officials were heading for Mazar-e-Sharif yesterday to find out why the two warlords -- who both claim allegiance to President Hamid Karzai -- were battling.
The fighting came as the Afghan government and UN signed a deal in the capital, Kabul, paving the way for UN and Afghan teams to deploy to cities across Afghanistan to start a much-delayed program to disarm militiamen loyal to warlords.
General Abdul Sabur, a spokesman for warlord Atta Mohammed's Jamiat-e-Islami faction, told The Associated Press by phone that hundreds of rival soldiers were massing around Mazar-e-Sharif.
He said fighters loyal to northern Uzbek commander Abdul Rashid Dostum began battling Atta's supporters about midday on Wednesday, and the fighting continued late into the night.
Sabur said 60 people were killed in the fighting, which involved tanks, heavy artillery and other weapons.
"The fighting is very intense," Sabur said late on Wednesday. "People are very scared. Shops and markets have all closed."
A second Jamiat spokesman, Ashraf Nadim, said fighters loyal to Dostum launched a separate attack in Maimana city, in the neighboring northern province of Faryab. He said it was not clear how many people had been killed there.
However, Syad Noorulla, one of Dostum's commanders, said that Atta's forces ambushed his troops about 50km west of Mazar-e-Sharif, killing three of his militiamen and wounding four.
He said the situation was tense across the area, but that there was no other fighting.
It was impossible to verify either account.
Foreign Ministry spokesman Omar Samad said the government did not know the extent of the clashes and had heard varying death tolls, ranging from just a few to several dozen.
"These battles are the worst we've seen in months," he said. "It needs to be contained before it spreads."
Samad said it was not clear what sparked the clashes, but that it was most likely disputes over land or access to water -- causes of repeated clashes in the past two years.
Both sides are nominally loyal to Karzai's central government, but disputes at a village level often escalate into larger battles, he said.
Repeated efforts by the UN and the Afghan government to mediate a peaceful resolution have failed.
Disarming the tens of thousands of militiamen is essential if the Afghan government is to build and deploy a national army to maintain security. It is also an important step if a NATO-led peacekeeping mission is to expand to regions outside Kabul.
But convincing the warlords -- many of whom are also provincial governors -- to surrender their weapons will be a major challenge. Some are allegedly involved in drug trafficking and other crimes, and may see little benefit in giving up the arms that keep them in power.
The first disarmament team is expected in the northern city of Kunduz on Oct. 25. More are slated to be sent to the cities of Gardez, Mazar-e-Sharif and Kabul later this year.
Attempts last year to disarm militia groups loyal to Atta and Dostum largely failed.
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