Official Killed as Strife Grows in Afghanistan

Posted in Broader Middle East | 22-Mar-04 | Author: Amy Waldman| Source: The New York Times

KABUL, Afghanistan, March 21 — Afghanistan's minister for civil aviation, the son of one of the country's most powerful warlords, was killed Sunday as fighting broke out in Herat. The violence was some of the worst in Afghanistan since the fall of the Taliban more than two years ago.

While accounts were conflicting over what set off the fighting, officials in Herat in western Afghanistan said it began after a failed assassination attempt against the warlord Ismail Khan, who is also the provincial governor.

Mr. Khan's son, Mir Wais Sadeq, the minister of civil aviation for the central government, was killed as he led an advance on the headquarters of a government commander whom he blamed for the assault on his father, said Herat's deputy intelligence chief, Abdul Wahid Tawakali.

The Pashto service of the British Broadcasting Corporation said the police, security and counternarcotics chiefs of Herat had also been killed, and the intelligence chief had been wounded, after seven rocket-propelled grenades were fired at Mr. Sadeq's convoy. Officials reached by telephone in Herat, however, said the police chief had not been killed.

Troops loyal to Mr. Khan surrounded the home and headquarters of the commander they deemed responsible for the attack, Zaher Naibzadah, and his brigade on Sunday night, and fighting was continuing. Reports that as many as 100 people had been killed were unconfirmed.

"There was heavy fighting earlier — it is now reported to be sporadic," said Omar Samad, a spokesman for the Foreign Ministry.

Occurring as Afghanistan is struggling to hold elections this summer, the violence underscores how fragile the country's stability remains after two decades of war. Mr. Sadeq is the second civil aviation and tourism minister, and the third government minister, to be killed since the interim administration of President Hamid Karzai interim administration took office in December 2001.

Abdul Rahman, an aviation and tourism minister, was killed in Kabul in February 2002. Hajji Qadeer, a vice president and minister of public works, was also killed that year.

The American Embassy released a statement on Sunday night saying that "Afghans must not let the success of the last two years be put in jeopardy by this incident." The embassy said it believed that the clash had begun with a "traffic incident," and said that its Provincial Reconstruction Team, a mix of civilian and military personnel based in Herat, had evacuated the German diplomatic staff from its office to the team's site.

Herat, which is about 75 miles from the Iranian border, has been largely peaceful, not least because Mr. Khan, with a large private army and extensive intelligence network, has kept tight control over dissidents and potential enemies.

His firm hold on power and unwillingness to permit free political activity have been seen in Kabul as obstacles to free and fair elections, and his refusal to submit fully to the rule of the central government has been viewed as a barrier to rebuilding.

Attempts had been under way in recent days to dislodge him from his seat of power, Afghan officials said in interviews. Mr. Khan was in Kabul this week and met several times with Mr. Karzai to discuss Mr. Khan's future, and to resolve a lingering dispute over whether Herat was fully sharing with the central government the customs revenues from its lucrative border crossings with Iran.

Several senior Afghan officials have said recently that they were considering moving Mr. Khan to another province. Zalmay Khalilzad, the American ambassador here, said Saturday that he, too, had recently met with Mr. Khan and that offering him a job with the central government was also being considered.

Until last year, Mr. Khan was governor and corps commander in Herat. To reduce his power, the central government insisted that he give up one of the posts, and he retained the governorship. Mr. Samad said Mr. Naibzadah had been appointed corps commander by the central government six or seven months ago, although other accounts said he was only a brigade commander.

Mr. Khan was a famous and feared commander whose resistance to the Soviet invasion brought the Soviets' wrath to Herat, but made him a legend to its people. He had been governor in Herat before the Taliban took the city in 1995, was imprisoned by them, and then escaped from prison and took refuge in Iran.

He returned in triumph — with the help of Mr. Naibzadah — in November 2001, and proclaimed himself emir, along with governor and corps commander, in Herat. Both men are members of Jamaat-e-Islami, a hard-line religious party.

To the chagrin of many residents of Herat, a historically liberal city, he had upon his return imposed a rigid form of religious conservatism, in which women were discouraged from working and vice monitors controlled the streets.

His son was brought into a cabinet meant to be inclusive of all of Afghanistan's factions and ethnic groups. They are ethnic Tajiks.

On Sunday, Mr. Khan was in a Herat park, the Bagh-e-Melat, when men opened fire with Kalashnikov rifles about 5:30 p.m., said Mr. Tawakali, the deputy intelligence chief.

Some men were detained and apparently implicated Mr. Naibzadah. "He is responsible," Mr. Tawakali said. As Mr. Sadeq, the minister, and others headed to the commander's headquarters, they came under attack. Mr. Tawakali said that Mr. Khan had not been injured — and that Mr. Khan was leading his forces in battle tonight.

Mr. Samad said the Afghan defense minister, Marshal Fahim, and Interior Minister Ali Jalali, would lead a delegation to Herat to ensure that a cease-fire was in place, and to attend Mr. Sadeq's funeral. He said Afghan National Army reinforcements would be sent to keep the peace and arrest those responsible.

A spokesman for Mr. Karzai said the president was shocked, and expressed his condolences to Mr. Khan.