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Factional Fighting Erupts in Gardez, Afghanistan - 2002-04-30

In Afghanistan, the worst factional fighting in months has erupted in Gardez, the capital of Paktia Province, a staging zone for the U.S.-led offensive against remnants of Taleban and al-Qaida forces. Although much of the fighting is blamed on local power struggles among rival warlords, it poses serious challenges to the interim government in Kabul.

Khan Mohammed was sitting down to breakfast with his family the other day in their home in Gardez, 120 kilometers south of Kabul. Suddenly an incoming rocket sprayed shrapnel through the mud walls of his home and shattered his life. His voice shakes as he describes the incident.

"We were having breakfast and we were having tea, when all of sudden rockets came and struck my house. And my children were killed."

When the dust settled, Khan's wife and son were dead. Two other children lay bleeding, seriously wounded. During the following hours, hundreds of rockets rained down on Gardez, striking dozens of homes, shops and schools. In all, more than two dozen people were killed and 65 were wounded. At the hospital, the staff struggled to cope with the disaster. But a dozen rockets hit the hospital grounds, shattering windows and disrupting operations. Assistant Doctor Faisal Shah says as a result, they were forced to evacuate.

"We couldn't take our patients here because our hospital was threatened with rockets and we were in danger. We treated them on the streets."

Following the attack, the once-bustling streets of this provincial capital were virtually deserted. Schools were closed, shops shuttered. Rockets continued to land sporadically. The traumatized residents stayed indoors. Local officials blame the attacks on former governor Padshah Khan Zadran, a local militia leader who has been unsuccessfully trying to re-assert his control over the region.

Paktia's education director, Abdul Samad Musleh, is angry. Eighty-eight schools had just opened a few weeks ago. Now, they are closed. Mr. Samad says after 25 years of indiscriminate killing from the rockets of the warlords, people here were optimistic when the Afghan interim government was formed. Now, he says, they are sad.

"But now, even when the administration is in place, we are still targeted with these rockets. And the government really should do something about. They should not stay out and be indifferent."

Mr. Samad says people are also angry at U.S. troops, which are stationed near Gardez but did nothing to stop the attacks.

"They should try to stop this fighting because they are the ones who are claiming to be preserving the human rights of people. And innocent people are dying here."

U.S. military officials say their first priority is the war on terrorism and the Afghan government should take the lead in dealing with local power struggles.

Paktia Province's new governor, Taj Mohammed Wardak, says he is still waiting for troops from Kabul. He says most residents want international forces to provide security in Gardez. But the international peacekeeping force in Afghanistan has been limited in scope to security in the capital, Kabul. The international coalition instead is assisting the interim government in building a new Afghan army.

Governor Wardak says a new Afghan army is a good idea, but a long-term solution.

"I believe that the Afghans, when they are trained, they can provide security, but it takes time and we cannot expect, in two or three months, the soldiers to be able to keep security, because they need a lot of training."

The governor says it could take as long as three years to establish the new army. Nevertheless, he does not believe the violence will prevent people in Gardez from electing delegates to next month's grand national council, or Loya Jirga, that is to create a transitional government.

Officials say that after two decades of war, a great deal of progress has been made in Afghanistan. Nevertheless, many Afghans worry that violence like that in Gardez could aggravate regional factionalism and undermine popular confidence in the fledgling government in Kabul.