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Sunday, 3 February, 2002, 13:36 GMT
Karzai tackles warlord dispute
Forces of Bacha Khan outside Gardez
Supporters of Karzai's appointee are poised to attack
Mediators appointed by the interim leader in Afghanistan, Hamid Karzai, have begun efforts to resolve a bloody dispute between rival warlords in the eastern town of Gardez.

I am officially the governor of Gardez. I am ready for more fighting

Bacha Khan
The commission began holding a loya jirga, or tribal council, in Gardez a day after flying there by helicopter, Border Affairs ministry official Merza Ali Khan said.

Conflicts between warlords are threatening the government's efforts to assert its authority over the whole country.

"The jirga will sit for two or three days," Merza Ali Khan said. "All parties will be represented. Afterwards the commission will report its findings to Karzai."

The United Nations is also involved through the presence of Ashraf Rafi Ahmedzai, a close aide to the UN envoy to Afghanistan, Lakhdar Brahimi.

US aircraft have been dropping leaflets over Gardez urging an end to the clashes - the worst in Afghanistan since the Taleban were ousted in December.

Speaking in Kabul, Mr Karzai stressed that Afghanistan must rid itself of "warlordism" if tensions in the country were to be calmed.

But reports from Gardez say there has been little co-operation from the combatants, who said they were ready to fight on.

Rival factions

The trouble flared on Wednesday when forces of warlord Bacha Khan - newly-appointed by the interim administration as governor of Paktia - tried to take over the governor's mansion in Gardez.

They were beaten back by forces loyal to Gardez's tribal council, which opposes the appointment of a man they claim is a tyrant and a smuggler.

Bacha Khan
Bacha Khan is an ally of Karzai
Bacha Khan accuses the Gardez council of being sympathetic to the Taleban and al-Qaeda - something which council members deny.

Up to 60 people were killed in exchanges involving artillery, mortars and heavy machineguns.

Before the meeting, Bacha Khan appeared to be in no mood for compromise.

"I am officially the governor of Gardez. I am ready for more fighting," he told reporters, gesturing towards 200 of his soldiers standing near a mudwalled fort outside of Gardez."You can see my fighters."

After meeting the delegation, Gardez council leader Haji Saifullah reiterated that Bacha Khan was "unacceptable".

He has accused Bacha Khan of calling US air strikes on to a convoy of local tribal members on their way to Mr Karzai's inauguration in December, which resulted in the deaths of more than 60 people.

US presence

US troops based in the area did not intervene in the fighting on Wednesday and Thursday, but they were deployed to guard the mosque where the mediators met Gardez council members on Sunday.

Haji Saifullah
Haji Saifullah leads a council opposed to Kabul's appointee
American special forces have been searching for fugitives of Osama Bin Laden's al-Qaeda network in the area, and on Sunday B-52 heavy bombers circled overhead for the first time in weeks.

"There continue to remain pockets of Taleban and al-Qaeda in the area," said US Army spokesman Tony Rivers in Kandahar.

Commanders representing two warlords in northern Afghanistan, Rashid Dostum and Atta Mohammad, are also reported to have held talks on Sunday at the Foreign Affairs offices of the interim government in Mazar-e-Sharif.

General Dostum's fighters told Associated Press that, contrary to recent reports, clashes had not escalated, but they acknowledged there was tension between the factions.

The BBC's Damian Grammaticas
"The government's delegation includes mediators from the United Nations"
See also:

31 Jan 02 | UK Politics
Blair cautious over Afghan force
30 Jan 02 | Americas
Karzai asks UN for bigger force
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