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Afghanistan: Heavy Factional Fighting In Paktia Province

Kabul, 31 January 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Heavy fighting has broken out in the town of Gardez in the southeastern Afghan province of Paktia, but the facts are murky.

This much is clear: More than 40 people have been killed by mortar explosions and exchanges of gunfire. Forces led by Padsha Khan Zadran, loyal to the interim administration in Kabul, are battling Afghan tribesmen who have controlled the city since the Taliban fled in late November.

Padsha Khan was appointed governor of the Paktia province, south of Kabul, last week. So far, the United States-led coalition in Afghanistan has not intervened. The Defense Ministry in Kabul declined to comment on the matter to RFE/RL. Some reports say the Defense Ministry is refusing to get involved in what it calls a local dispute.

Most everything else about the fighting in Paktia is shrouded in uncertainty, as supporters of opposing factions offer widely differing interpretations of what is actually going on.

RFE/RL spoke with Afghanistan's minister of frontier affairs, Amanullah Zadran, who is not just a disinterested observer. He is the brother of Padsha Khan. He claims that tribesmen with links to the Al-Qaeda terrorist network are resisting the appointment of his brother as governor of Paktia.

Minister Zadran said his brother was attacked by Al-Qaeda members yesterday when he entered the provincial capital.

"Yesterday, at 0200 (local time), Padsha Khan was on his way to his office with a large number of his own tribe and the Ahmad Zai, Mangal, Zazai tribes, some people from the city of Gardez, and some people from Zurmat. When they entered the city, people started to attack them. Some of our supporters in Gardez were killed and some were injured, and some are still missing. And because the people who were with him (Padsha Khan) were armed, they also started to fight in their own defense."

A different story is told by the National Islamic Front, led by Pir Sayed Ahmad Gailani. Gailani's son, Sayed Mohammad, spoke to RFE/RL's Afghan Service from his home in Pakistan.

Sayed Mohammad Gailani said a group of his father's followers from the National Islamic Front traveled to Paktia and invited all parties in the region to a gathering in Gardez. The younger Gailani said Padsha Khan's supporters arrived in armored personnel carriers and brought guns and mortars. Gailani said Zadran's group appeared ready to join the gathering but then unexpectedly attacked his father's group.

Minister Zadran in Kabul says events in Gardez had not been caused by tribal rivalry but by the presence of Al-Qaeda members.

"Some Ahmad Zai tribesmen, numbering no more than 50 or 100, they are against us, and they are Al-Qaeda members. There are other Ahmad Zai tribesmen. They are our partners."

However, Sayed Mohammad Gailani does not believe that anyone fighting in Gardez is a member of Al-Qaeda. He also says Zadran was not selected by the interim government and that is the reason why the National Islamic Front resisted his efforts to install himself in the province.

Minister Zadran said fighting is now confined to two places in Gardez -- police headquarters and the city's Bala Hissar, or fortress. Zadran says he expects the fighting to be over later today.

"By this evening, these two nests of terrorists, these two places, will be destroyed."

The contradictory stories told about the fighting in Gardez show the obstacles the coalition forces face in trying to decipher what is happening on the ground and why. The inclination to label one's opponents as members of Al-Qaeda further underscores the difficulties in gathering good intelligence.

Opponents of the appointment of Padsha Khan say he is responsible for the fatal bombing of a convoy of elders that was on its way to attend the appointment of the interim government in Kabul last month. They claim Zadran intentionally misled the U.S. military by claiming the convoy included members of Al-Qaeda.

Zadran's brother, the minister of frontier affairs, continues to assert that Al-Qaeda members are still active in Paktia.

In this atmosphere of claim and counterclaim, both the interim Afghan government and the international coalition face a major challenge in trying to decipher the truth.

(RFE/RL's Afghan Service contributed to this report.)