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Afghanistan: Paktia Province Tense As Ousted Governor Vows To Fight

Afghanistan's interim leader, Hamid Karzai, is trying to resolve a dispute between two rival Pashtun factions in the southern province of Paktia by appointing a neutral third person as governor there. After speaking with all sides in the dispute, RFE/RL correspondent Ron Synovitz reports from Kabul that another outbreak of fighting in Paktia's capital of Gardez appears likely.

Kabul, 11 February 2002 (RFE/RL) -- With a conflict in Afghanistan's southeastern province of Paktia challenging the authority of the country's interim administration, government sources are telling RFE/RL that interim leader Hamid Karzai is sacking the governor there, Padshah Khan Zadran, the Pashtun leader he appointed in January.

The sacking is part of an effort by Karzai to resolve a bloody dispute between Zadran and his rival from another Pashtun clan, Gardez tribal council leader Haji Saifullah. In Zadran's place, government sources have told RFE/RL that Karzai is appointing a neutral third party to the governorship -- Taj Mohammad Wardak from the nearby province of Wardak.

The Paktia affair is one of several disputes across Afghanistan demonstrating the difficulties the interim administration faces as it tries to assert authority outside of Kabul. The interim administration does not have any forces of its own in the areas where rivalries between faction leaders or former warlords are simmering.

Some 50 people were killed in fighting in January at Gardez, the provincial capital of Paktia, when Zadran's troops tried to move into the town. His forces were driven back by troops loyal to Saifullah. Karzai has blamed Zadran for the violence, saying he was wrong to provoke his rivals by entering Gardez with military forces.

Zadran said Karzai is showing weakness by revoking his appointment in the face of violence: "Neither I nor [the people of] Paktia accept it. All the people refuse to accept it. Tell this to the world through the microphone."

Zadran claims that Saifullah is allied with the Al-Qaeda network. U.S. military forces in the region have been investigating the possibility of a link between Saifullah and Al-Qaeda but so far have not been able to substantiate the claim.

Wearing a military camouflage jacket and belts of Kalashnikov bullets strapped across his chest, Zadran told journalists at a press conference in Kabul last night that he still considers himself to be Paktia's governor. He said he rejects any other decree from Karzai on the matter.

"Karzai has already decided and appointed me as a governor, so there is no need for another decision to be made. If he is making another decision, then the situation will change in all of the provinces. It will be a kind of privilege given to Al-Qaeda by Karzai," Zadran said.

Zadran said he has already mobilized 6,000 troops in Paktia and the neighboring provinces of Paktia and Khost. He also said he can quickly muster as many as 30,000 troops to support him.

RFE/RL's correspondent in Paktia Province has confirmed that Zadran now has at least 2,000 soldiers in positions about five kilometers from the outskirts of Gardez. They are equipped with tanks, heavy artillery, mortars, and hundreds of rocket-propelled grenade launchers. Trucks of ammunition and weapons have been resupplying Zadran's front-line troops since a cease-fire brought an end to January's battle.

Tribal elders who support Zadran -- such as Hazrat Gul Samandar of the Mangal tribe in Paktia -- said they back Karzai as interim leader. But they said they do not recognize any executive order from Karzai that removes Zadran's powers.

"We only accept the first decree which was issued [by Karzai] regarding Padshah Khan [Zadran]. We don't accept any new one. We obey the first decree," Samandar said.

For his part, Saifullah is accusing Zadran of being backed by Al-Qaeda. The allegations and counter-charges about Al-Qaeda links have created a situation in which both sides are trying to justify future fighting as part of the U.S.-led campaign against terrorism.

In anticipation of such moves, government mediator Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai told RFE/RL that both sides have been told that they do not have the authority to do battle on their own against Al-Qaeda fighters who are lingering in the mountains of Paktia near the border with Pakistan. Ahmadzai said nobody in Afghanistan is allowed to fight Al-Qaeda without first coordinating their efforts with the central government.

Ahmadzai also said Karzai is showing strong leadership by taking a firm stand in the Paktia conflict -- showing there is only one government in charge of Afghanistan.

Baz Mohammed, a supporter of Zadran who took part in talks on 9 February between Karzai and Zadran, told RFE/RL the interim leader promised to resolve the Paktia crisis in a fair and just manner.

"Mr. Karzai said, 'God willing, I will solve this problem.' And he assured us that he would not be careless about what was going on there in Paktia," Mohammed said.

While Zadran claims that he is the only legitimate governor of Paktia, Saifullah told RFE/RL that he would be satisfied with a third party in the post. Saifullah has told the interim administration that the only governor that would be unacceptable for Paktia is Zadran.

"I have not requested the people to select me as a governor but the people [of Paktia province] themselves want me to be the governor. Now if the people are not satisfied with me and if the government makes another decision, then I accept it and don't want to be the governor."

Saifullah has said he will not attack Zadran's forces. But he said that his troops will defend themselves against any offensive that Zadran might launch in Paktia Province. Zadran today returned to the front lines to be with his troops on the outskirts of Gardez.

(RFE/RL Afghan service correspondents Javed Hamdard and Kabir Aimaq contributed to this report.)