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Fighting in E. Afghanistan Claims More Than 50 Lives - 2002-02-06

Afghanistan's interim leader, Hamid Karzai, says his country needs a national army to deal with major security problems, such as factional fighting. In one area of eastern Afghanistan last week, inter-tribal tensions erupted into full-fledged fighting, claiming more than 50 lives.

On a windswept barren mountainside, several kilometers east of Gardez, a few hundred men huddle against the cold. Some gather around open fires while others just brave the wind and snow wrapped in long woolen shawls. All the men are armed with Kalashnikov automatic rifles and some also carry rocket-propelled grenades. These are the fighters of warlord Padcha Khan Zadran. They retreated to this outpost after clashes last week with the forces of a rival tribal leader in Gardez. Today, they're waiting for the outcome of negotiations.

A team from Kabul, sent by interim leader Hamid Karzai, meets with Padcha Khan inside a small mud brick structure atop the hill to try to resolve the dispute.

The core issue is who controls Gardez and the surrounding province of Paktia. Padcha Khan is a tribal leader in neighboring Khost province, but the interim government recently named him governor of Paktia province as well, of which Gardez is the capital. His appointment is opposed by some members of the Gardez local government, including Haji Saifullah, who heads the town council, or Shura. The fighting started when Padcha Khan's men marched into Gardez last week to establish his authority. One of Pacha Khan's fighters insists the conflict was not their fault.

He says they came to Gardez with no intention to fight. He says the other side started shooting.

In two days of fighting more than 50 people were killed, many were injured and close to 200 were taken prisoner by both sides.

The two factions are currently observing a cease-fire as negotiations are underway to resolve the issue of who should control Paktia province. But though the fighting has stopped, the two sides continue hurl accusations at each other.

Amanullah Khan is the brother of Padcha Khan. He is also minister for tribal and border affairs in the interim government in Kabul. In the Gardez dispute, he clearly takes the side of his brother.

He insists that those opposing his brother are supporters of the al-Qaida terrorist network and he says they even receive money from al-Qaida to work against peace in Afghanistan.

Those charges are vehemently denied by Haji Saifullah in Gardez.

It is a lie and nobody believes that, he says. He accuses Padcha Khan of saying these things to impress the government and get close to the Americans.

Haji Saifullah's supporters, in turn, accuse Padcha Khan of having fed false information to the Americans to call in air strikes against his opponents. But the feelings against Padcha Khan go back many years. One elderly Gardez resident says people also remember the looting that took place when Padcha Khan's men came into town in 1992, during the civil war.

Each side insists it wants peace, but neither side seems inclined to back down.

Amanullah Khan staunchly defends his brother.

Yes, I want my brother to be governor in Gardez, he says and adds that that's what most of the people want also.

Haji Saifullah remains fiercely opposed to him.

He insists that Padcha Khan will not be governor, adding he will not be able to come to Gardez because he has killed many people here and robbed many shops here and people don't want him.

While the dispute has thus far not been resolved, tensions have eased. On Tuesday, Padcha Khan released two dozen prisoners his men took during last week's fighting. The prisoners were taken by bus to Gardez.

One of the negotiators from Kabul checked off the names as the prisoners stepped off the bus. Many were welcomed by friends and relatives.

The negotiator then went off to round up Padcha Khan's men who've been held prisoner in Gardez. They too would be released, he said, as an important step to defusing this crisis.

Both sides are looking to the interim government in Kabul to resolve the issue and each side is hoping for support. Hamid Karzai has said Padcha Khan should not have used force to try to move into Gardez and he has appealed to both sides to refrain from fighting.

Mr. Karzai wants to avoid incidents like this as he works to shore up support for his government within the country - and as he seeks continued international support to rebuild Afghanistan. Mr. Karzai has apparently invited both sides in the Gardez dispute to meet with him Friday.