Prague, 16 August 2004 (RFE/RL) -- Afghan Defense Ministry spokesman Zaher Azimi says fighting in recent days in Herat Province began with a coordinated attack against Governor Ismail Khan's militia by several rival militia groups in western Afghanistan.
"Herat was attacked from three sides -- [from the north, the south, and the east] -- and according to the latest information received by the Ministry of Defense, the casualties include 22 Afghans killed," Azimi said.
Afghan Transitional Administration Chairman Hamid Karzai is supporting Ismail Khan in the dispute. Karzai says Khan is the legal governor of the province and that the attacks against him represent an attack on the Afghan state.
The history of Ismail Khan's rivalry with Amanullah Khan and other warlords in western Afghanistan goes back years.
Karzai also says the deployment of 1,500 troops from the Afghan National Army and the National Police will allow the central government to take strong measures to protect itself against further fighting.
One group engaged in the fighting is an outlawed Pashtun militia force led by Commander Amanullah Khan -- a long-time rival of Ismail Khan whose forces control the Shindand District to the south of Herat city.
In an interview with RFE/RL's Afghan Service, Amanullah Khan denied responsibility for the fighting. He admitted taking part in a coordinated attack against Ismail Khan's forces. But he says his militia joined the attack because of demands by Ismail Khan's spokesman, Nasir Alevi, to surrender territory that his militia controls.
"We can't accept this demand of Mr. Alevi that we should leave Shindand district. We don't want war and fighting. We never wanted war. If we are blamed for starting a war, I suggest that we both go to the courts and the court should decide who is responsible. If we go to the court, I think the problem in Herat will be solved," Amanullah Khan said.
Amanullah Khan says the root cause of the fighting is widespread dissatisfaction with Ismail Khan over alleged human rights abuses by his mostly ethnic Tajik militia.
"[Ismail Khan] doesn't give us our rights here. He insults and terrorizes people and [his militia] has even killed elderly citizens. The people of all five [western Afghan] provinces -- Nimruz, Farah, Baghdis, Ghowr, and Herat -- all know about this," Amanullah Khan said.
Amanullah Khan told RFE/RL that the attack on 14 August that allowed his militia to seize an air base to the south of Herat was coordinated with other militia forces to the north and east of Herat whose commanders also oppose Ismail Khan.
The history of Ismail Khan's rivalry with Amanullah Khan and other warlords in western Afghanistan goes back years. Residents of the lawless rural areas around Herat have long complained about their land and property being seized by various roving militia groups that battle each other in the region.
Two years ago, during the Afghan Emergency Loya Jirga that approved Karzai as Transitional Administration chairman, governors of nearby provinces repeatedly complained about transit tariffs being imposed by Ismail Khan on imports coming from Iran.
The main highway link between Iran and Afghanistan passes directly through Herat and the relative prosperity in the city is largely attributed to the duties that Ismail Khan imposes on trucks that carry Iranian goods on to Kandahar and Kabul. Karzai has accused Ismail Khan of failing to forward those tariffs to the central government in Kabul.
At one point in the summer of 2002, a United Nations relief agency was forced to temporarily halt aid shipments over that highway -- saying that the fees being charged by gunmen at Ismail Khan's militia checkpoints were "prohibitive."
On 15 August, Azimi said Amanullah Khan's forces left the air base to the south of Herat without a fight when the first Afghan National Army troops began to arrive in NATO and U.S. military transport planes.
Amanullah Khan says he welcomes the deployment of the National Army. But he also complained that the central government has failed to protect ethnic Pashtuns to the south of Herat in the past when those Afghans were being attacked by Ismail Khan's forces.
Meanwhile, there were conflicting reports about fighting today in Baghdis Province to the north of Herat. The Pakistan-based Afghan Islamic Press quoted a police chief in Baghdis, General Ameer Shah, as saying that about 400 of Ismail Khan's militia fighters had advanced into the suburbs of the provincial capital of Qila Nau.
But General Zahir Nayebzada -- the commander of another outlawed militia force who fled to Baghdis Province in March after clashes in Herat city with Ismail Khan's forces -- told RFE/RL that there was no fighting in Baghdis Province today.