Kabul, 22 March 2004 (RFE/RL) -- Afghan Defense Ministry officials told RFE/RL today they are sending two battalions of the Afghan National Army to the western city of Herat after a battle linked to a standoff over Governor Ismail Khan's extensive political and military powers.
The deployment of the 1,500 U.S.-trained soldiers was ordered by Defense Minister Mohammad Qasim Fahim after an emergency session of the Afghan government last night to discuss yesterday's killing of Afghan Civil Aviation Minister Mirwais Sadeq and the crisis in Herat.
Sadeq is the son of Ismail Khan. He was killed by a rocket-propelled grenade fired yesterday amidst the military standoff between his father and General Abdul Zaher Nayebzadah, the Defense Ministry's Herat Division commander.
Khan has blamed Nayebzadah's troops for his son's death. His private army responded by surrounding Nayebzadah's private residence and the headquarters of the Herat Division. Both buildings were seized by Khan's fighters overnight.
Azizullah Ludin is a tribal elder from an ethnic Pashtun clan in Herat Province and a member of a group called Herat Council Supporting the Afghan Central Government. He told RFE/RL today that the forces of Khan and Nayebzadah have been poised against one another for several days outside of the Herat Division headquarters.
"The people of Herat established the council to support the central government's authority [because they want to bring an end to rule by warlords and local commanders]. Military generals [including Nayebzadah] also are members of the council, and Ismail Khan has opposed the formation of this council. Some of the military generals in this council wanted the authority of the central government to be expanded into Herat. So, actually, these were the main differences between Ismail Khan and [General Nayebzadah]. In the end, it has resulted in an enormous incident such as this."
Fahim and Interior Minister Ali Ahmad Jalali arrived in Herat today and met with Ismail Khan to discuss his son's death and the circumstances around the battle. According to Afghan officials, the death toll from yesterday's fighting ranges from 50 to 100 people -- most of them fighters from the two factions.
Meanwhile, there are conflicting reports about the whereabouts of General Nayebzadah. His secretary, Haji Gul Agha, told RFE/RL today that the general has disappeared and is feared to have been killed by Khan's forces.
But a spokesman for Ismail Khan, General Ghulam Mohammed Masoon, told RFE/RL today that Nayebzadah had escaped.
Just a few hours before Nayebzadah's disappearance, he gave an exclusive telephone interview to RFE/RL from his besieged home.
"You can hear the sounds of heavy machine-gun fighting in the background. The people of Herat are witnesses that Ismail Khan's gunmen have attacked my family and that there is now a battle raging around my house."
Nayebzadah did not deny that it was one of his soldiers who fired the rocket-propelled grenade that killed Khan's son. But he said the fighting with Khan's militia forces started before Sadeq's death.
"When I sent some of my soldiers to get some maps and training materials, on the way, forces loyal to Ismail Khan ambushed them. They killed one of my soldiers and injured the other two. After this ambush, some of my soldiers moved to defend my residence -- and now the fight is raging around my house."
Nayebzadah specified that his soldiers belong to the 4th Corps of the Afghan Defense Ministry. He said that force receives its orders from the central government through the Defense Ministry. He also said the cause of the fighting is the ongoing dispute with Ismail Khan over the authority of the central government in Herat Province.
"The differences between us are very clear. We want to expand the central government's authority across the country, and they do not want this. They want to remain powerful and govern the area by themselves."
Ismail Khan's spokesman, General Masoon, confirms that there had been a military standoff with Nayebzadah's forces during the last several days. Masoon told RFE/RL today that Nayebzadah had been trying to negotiate a resolution of the crisis but had failed and that fighting had resumed.
When asked about the deployment of 1,500 Afghan National Army soldiers to Herat, Masoon called the action unnecessary: "I believe that the security situation has been normalized and everything here in Herat is stable. So there is no need to deploy the National Army battalions to Herat. And I think it is not fair."
Land vehicles and air transport are conducting the Afghan deployment. All 1,500 of the soldiers are expected to be in the province by tonight.
Afghan President Hamid Karzai said in a brief statement that he is "deeply shocked" by yesterday's killing of Sadeq. He offered condolences to Ismail Khan.
The U.S. Embassy in Kabul today urged all parties involved in the violence to remain calm, to abide by the rule of law, and to avoid further bloodshed. An embassy statement said Afghanistan must not let the progress on reforms during the past two years be jeopardized by the fighting.
U.S. military spokesman Bryan Hilferty called the battle an "internal" matter and said he knows of no American plans to intervene. There are fewer than 100 U.S. soldiers based at the headquarters of a U.S.-led Provincial Reconstruction Team in Herat.
(RFE/RL's Afghan Service contributed to this report.)