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Afghanistan: Security Forces Detain 600 Men For Allegedly Planning Armed Rebellion

Afghan security forces say they have arrested 600 members of a fundamentalist, anti-Western organization whose aim was to overthrow the interim government in Kabul. International peacekeepers in the Afghan capital report that the government has linked two weapons caches discovered in the city to Pakistani Islamic militants who back Al-Qaeda. The peacekeepers say they are also disturbed by an increase in crime, which they suspect is aimed at destabilizing the capital.

Kabul, 4 April 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Afghan security forces said today they detained 600 men in a roundup of people suspected of planning an armed rebellion.

The chief of Afghanistan's security forces, General Din Mohammad Jurat, said the men were members of the Hezb-i-Islami group headed by Gulbuddin Hekmatyar.

ISAF, the International Security Assistance Force in the Afghan capital Kabul, says the arrests follow the discovery by Afghan government security forces of two weapons caches in two neighboring city districts.

The districts are populated by minority Hazaras, who follow the Shi'a sect of Islam unlike Afghanistan's Sunni majority and have been targeted for persecution by past Afghan governments. The districts have recently seen an increase in crime which ISAF believes could be aimed at rupturing fragile ethnic relations.

ISAF says it knew the arrests were going to happen but did not take part in the operations. An ISAF spokesman, Flight Lieutenant Tony Marshall, says the Afghan government believes weapons are being brought into Kabul by a powerful Pakistani Islamic organization which supported Afghanistan's former Taliban regime and also backs Hekmatyar's Hezb-i-Islami group.

"In District Six [of Kabul], a Pakistani vehicle was stopped with two individuals aboard and 32 AK-47s were taken from that vehicle. In District Five, a house was raided and 15 AK-47s were lifted as a part of that operation. This was an interim administration security issue; it was carried out by [the] national security directorate."

Marshall added the two incidents were linked to a fundamentalist Islamic group believed to be from Pakistan.

The ISAF spokesman said the driver of the truck was a Pakistani and that men arrested at the house were also Pakistanis. Marshall said that there had also been an attempt to capture Wahidullah Sabawoon, a key collaborator of Hekmatyar, a prominent Afghan fundamentalist warlord and former prime minister.

"During the first [of April], and perhaps the second as well, there was an operation carried out against [Sabawoon's] house. It was surrounded in an attempt to capture Sabawoon, and take him into custody. We have been informed that he wasn't at home and that they are still currently looking for him. Sabawoon, we are told, is the son-in-law of Hekmatyar. Possibly it may be linked with other arrests that have taken place in the city over the last two or three days, which number some 300 in total."

The Afghan government later said they had captured Sabawoon.

The security chief of the Kabul governor's office, Mohammad Naseer, said that Hezb-i-Islami wanted to mount a coup to overthrow the interim administration led by Hamid Karzai.

Hekmatyar led the largest of the mujahedin resistance groups during the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan in the 1980s. He had close links to the Pakistani Jamiat-i-Islami organization, which is suspected of bringing in the weapons found this week.

Hekmatyar was a major player in the prolonged Afghan civil war that followed the withdrawal of Soviet forces as he battled to become the country's supreme leader. He became prime minister in a fragile government formed with his former Afghan enemies. That government was overthrown by the ultra-extremist Taliban militia and its Al-Qaeda allies.

Hekmatyar then fled to Iran. But after the U.S.-led campaign against the Taliban and Al-Qaeda began last fall, Hekmatyar said he supported the Taliban. Earlier this year, he returned to Afghanistan and is thought to be near the eastern city of Jalalabad. He has tried to proclaim a jihad, or holy struggle, against Western forces.

Increasing crime in Kabul, meanwhile, has sparked concern among the UN-mandated peacekeepers based in the capital. ISAF's chief spokesman, Lieutenant Colonel Neal Peckham, says there has been an upsurge in crime in Kabul's District Six. "There is a preponderance of the Hazara community there, they have congregated in that part of the city. It is an extremely poor area of the city in terms of commerce and wealth and it's taken a real hammering (suffered great destruction) over the past years because of the fighting that has occurred in that part of the region. They are clearly disadvantaged to start with, and then they're being put upon by armed gangs who are carrying out these attacks."

Marshall says ISAF has stepped up its patrols in the area in an attempt to deter robberies -- some involving murder -- which threaten to increase tensions between ethnic communities in the capital and throughout Afghanistan.

"Our decision to focus on that area is because there was a particularly gruesome double murder down there and then the Royal Anglians (British soldiers from the Royal Anglian Regiment) came under fire Saturday (30 March) night as well, and as a result we have focused on that area. Armed men entered the house. They took money and food, they robbed the house next door, and were in the process of taking the daughter through to the house next door for reasons that are not clear. But the mother and father believed that the daughter was being abducted. They then tried to raise the alarm. The mother was immediately machine-gunned and the father, I believe, was shot several times in the stomach and then bayoneted."

Peckham said senior ISAF officers had spoken to representatives of the District Six residents. He says ISAF intelligence sources and those of the Afghan government believe that another powerful warlord, Abdul-Rab al-Rasul Sayaaf, is linked to the incidents. Sayaaf's group is part of the Northern Alliance which, aided by the U.S.-led air campaign, overthrew the Taliban and now forms the most influential part of the country's interim government.

During the 1990s Sayaaf's men, who are Sunnis from Afghanistan's biggest ethnic group, the Pashtuns, fought bitter battles with the Hazaras in Kabul.

Peckham said that there is a suspicion that the upsurge in crime is part of an attempt to destabilize Kabul, possibly ahead of an important Loya Jirga, or tribal council, in June. Both Hekmatyar and Sayaaf have strong motives for disrupting the Loya Jirga, which is tasked with appointing an 18-month transitional authority to run the country. Western diplomats say it would be a great setback for peace and stability in Afghanistan if the conference collapses. Both Hekmatyar and Sayaaf fear the Loya Jirga will make decisions that will block their desires. Hekmatyar wants to install a fundamentalist government. Sayaf, and the Northern Alliance, are against the return of Afghanistan's former king, Zahir Shah, who, many believe, will win support from the Loya Jirga.

Peckham says a climate of uncertainty is being deliberately created in the western part of Kabul and ISAF is anxious it may spread to the rest of the capital.

"We believe that there is some motivation behind [the upsurge in crime]. It is organized. There are armed robberies that seem to be targeting a particular area, which holds a particular community, the Hazaras. And therefore, we're concerned. We have in the last two and a half months seen a steady decrease in the level of incidents overall and suddenly we're getting this hotspot which is concerning us."

Afghan authorities say that 250 of the 600 have been arrested while the others are still being held for questioning.