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Major Battle Erupts at Afghan Police Station - 2003-08-18

Militant violence is on the rise in Afghanistan, where officials are reporting a series of attacks in the southeastern province of Paktika. At least seven police and 15 renegade militants are believe to have been killed in one incident at a police station. The increased fighting threatens to hamper aid operations in rural areas.

Afghan security officials say scores of militants - believed to include remnants of the ousted Taleban regime - fought their way into the Barmal district police station Sunday with heavy machine guns and rockets, holding the compound for several hours until fleeing at dawn.

The militant force is said to have arrived and left in a convoy of vehicles -- an unusual tactic - since local militant fighters normally attack on foot from mountainous areas near the border. Several local reports say the militants may have fled to avoid air strikes from U.S.-led coalition units - battling Taleban fighters, al-Qaida elements and forces loyal to rebel warlord Gulbuddin Hekmatyar.

Just hours later a militant force estimated at 200 men burned down a police station in another Paktia province village. These attacks are the latest in a week of intensified violence in Afghanistan, during which some 60 people were killed in a single 24-hour period.

United Nations spokesman in Afghanistan, David Singh, says the upsurge is of serious concern. "The apparent increase in these attacks is worrisome, because you have to think, 'How does it affect aid operations? How does it affect the morale of the people in those neighborhoods?'"

Mr. Singh says the fresh fighting has prompted temporary restrictions on U.N. travel and operations in some areas, but the aid situation is not yet dire. Some of the violence may be in reaction to new government efforts to reign in warlords with private armies - some of whom also hold military posts in the government.

President Hamid Karzai recently reshuffled a number of key provincial security posts, reducing the powers held by warlords such as Herat provincial Governor Ismail Khan. The government is also planning a nationwide disarmament program, to be assisted by the United Nations.

That project, however, is still waiting for reforms in the Defense Ministry - which is dominated by former members of the Northern Alliance who helped oust the Taleban regime in 2001.

Some warlords are said to be wary of turning in their weapons while the ministry remains in the hands of ex-Northern Alliance leaders - many of whom are from Afghanistan's Tajik ethnic minority.