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Factional Fighting Escalates in Afghanistan - 2003-10-09

As many as 50 Afghan militia soldiers are reported dead in the worst factional fighting Afghanistan has seen in two years. Both of the militias involved are technically part of the Afghan armed forces.

The fighting erupted Wednesday in the countryside around the northern Afghan city of Mazar-i-Sharif. The units involved were militias led by feuding northern commanders Abdul Rashid Dostum and Atta Mohammad. Local reports say the rival commanders' units engaged in battle throughout Balkh and Jozjan provinces.

General Dostum, an ethnic Uzbek, and General Atta, a Tajik rival, were allies in the 2001 war to overthrow Afghanistan's former Taleban regime. But since then, the two have fought each other off and on for control of the country's north, where each are accused of ruling the territory they hold as private mini-states.

Both men technically hold military commands under the central government's armed forces, which is currently mostly made up of semi-independent militias. Those militias are expected to be disbanded once the country has built up its new national army.

In view of the increased fighting between General Dostum and General Atta's troops, Interior Minister Ali Jalali says he plans to meet with the two commanders Thursday in an attempt to ease tensions. He says he is optimistic the situation can be defused, and that both sides claim Wednesday's battles stemmed from a misunderstanding.

"To the extent I know, they are ready to cooperate in defusing the situation in the north," says Mr. Jalali. "They believe there were some incidents at the lower level [of command] that triggered the current stand-off between their forces."

His efforts to end fighting between the two commanders is not the first such attempt. A number of international envoys, including some from the United Nations, have sought guarantees to an end of such factional fighting in northern Afghanistan. But Mr. Jalali says this time, both generals appear willing to take new steps to pacify the region, possibly including turning over their heavy weapons to central government supervision.