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Afghanistan: Weekend Incidents Rattle Tentative Calm

Afghanistan's fragile peace was shaken this weekend with fighting and attacks involving peacekeepers, U.S.-led combat troops, and a battle between rival Afghan groups. RFE/RL correspondent Askold Krushelnycky reports from Dasht-i-Top in Afghanistan's Wardak Province.

Dash-i-Top, Afghanistan; 15 April 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Fighting erupted in different parts of Afghanistan over the weekend, increasing fears of instability in the country. U.S. soldiers and Afghan allied forces on Saturday returned fire after being attacked by Al-Qaeda fighters, engaging in a battle that saw the worst fighting since the U.S.-led Operation Anaconda concluded last month.

U.S. military spokesman Major Bryan Hilferty said the fighting marked the second time coalition forces were attacked that day by Al-Qaeda fighters. He would not say where either incident took place, but he said no U.S. or Afghan allied forces were hurt. He said an unspecified number of Al-Qaeda fighters were killed in the fighting and in several other operations in Afghanistan.

American combat forces also reported a rocket attack on a U.S. Special Forces base at the Khost airport, southeast of the capital, Kabul. Two explosions occurred at the airfield Sunday night, following two blasts Saturday night in roughly the same area. No injuries were reported in either incident.

U.S. forces at the base train Afghan troops to participate in joint fighting missions as they hunt for Al-Qaeda and Taliban forces believed to be still in the mountainous area close to the border with Pakistan.

And on Friday, British soldiers from the United Nations-mandated International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) were attacked by 30 gunmen in western Kabul. An ISAF spokesman, Flight Lieutenant Joel Fall, said the British soldiers fought back "robustly" and captured seven of the attackers. No one was hurt in the exchange of gunfire.

Fall said the men who were captured were handed over to the Afghan authorities. Deen Mohammad Joorat, the security chief of Afghanistan's Interior Ministry, said the men were members of the interim-government security force. He said they were plotting to sabotage the security situation in the Afghan capital.

Both ISAF and the interim government are investigating claims that the attackers mistook the British soldiers for criminals. The area has seen a recent upsurge in crime.

Fall says that despite Friday's incident, trust remains high between the Afghan interim administration and ISAF, whose members have helped to train many members of the administration's police force.

"There are some elements that are obviously up to no good, but cooperation between the [interim administration] and ISAF has proved that we have got seven arrests and that we are still working toward making sure that the city is secure and stable," Fall said.

The first of a contingent of British Royal Marines who arrived earlier this month to reinforce U.S.-led combat troops is preparing to begin operations against Al-Qaeda and Taliban forces as soon as this week. The forthcoming operations by the Royal Marines have given rise to fears that anti-Western forces will seek reprisals against the 1,500 British soldiers who form the biggest component of ISAF peacekeepers in Kabul.

ISAF spokesman Lieutenant Colonel Neal Peckham said the peacekeepers have tried to inform Afghans that they are separate from the combat troops. But a British officer who did not want to be named admitted the peacekeepers, who deliberately carry out highly visible patrols to instill confidence in the local population, are a much easier target for hostile forces than the British combat marines based at the heavily fortified Bagram base.

Fighting between rival Afghan factions has also disturbed the tentative calm in Afghanistan. On Friday, a battle broke out between pro-government forces and a militia commander in Dasht-i-Top, an area some 50 kilometers west of Kabul in Wardak Province.

The area, located about 10 kilometers from the town of Maidan Shahr, is flat, sun-baked scrubland overlooked by low hills. On both Friday and Saturday, there were fierce exchanges involving mortar fire, rocket-propelled grenades and machine-gun fire. The pro-government side also used tanks and armored personnel carriers.

Government commander Zaffar Uddin Khan said the fighting broke out between local commander Ghulam Rohani Nangiali, who controls a large part of the province, and Muzaffaruddin, a local Defense Ministry commander.

At least nine people died in the clashes. A six-member peace mission from Afghan interim leader Hamid Karzai today began negotiations between the rival warlords.

News reports cited Nangiali as saying, "We did not initiate the fighting; therefore, a cease-fire is not our responsibility." But Nangiali, a royalist loyal to former King Zahir Shah, accused Muzaffaruddin of trying to "sabotage" June's Loya Jirga, or national assembly, which will select the country's 18-month transitional authority.

Government commander Khan said the recent incidents aim to disrupt preparations for the Loya Jirga, which will bring together a diverse group of Afghan politicians, tribal and religious leaders, and representatives of different ethnic groups. The international community is looking to the Loya Jirga to pave the way for eventual democratic elections and a stable future in Afghanistan.

Khan said the interim administration is working to guarantee that no incidents of fighting or instability disturb the Loya Jirga process. "These people responsible for the incidents want to destabilize the situation and they want to make the situation worse. But we will do our best to defeat them and to create a peaceful situation for the Loya Jirga, which we support," Khan said.

The election of about 1,500 delegates to the Loya Jirga begins today. The first of more than 300 local district meetings to pick Loya Jirga representatives is due to be held in Mardyan, in the northern Jozjan Province.

Zahir Shah is due to inaugurate the Loya Jirga. The former king, who has lived in exile in Rome since being toppled in a 1973 coup, has postponed his return several times due to safety concerns. But the interim administration announced he will arrive this Thursday or Friday.