Image: Afghan soldiers march.
Ed Wray  /  AP
Afghan soldiers march on Monday toward a plane which will take them from Kabul to Herat, in western Afghanistan, where fierce factional fighting broke out following the assassination of an Afghan minister.
updated 3/22/2004 11:26:44 AM ET 2004-03-22T16:26:44

Shouldering ammunition belts and rifles, hundreds of Afghan soldiers deployed to the western city of Herat on Monday after some of the fiercest factional fighting since the 2001 fall of the Taliban killed a Cabinet minister and as many as 100 others.

Forces loyal to Herat’s governor, powerful warlord Ismail Khan, claimed to have retaken control of Herat by daylight Monday after raging tank, rocket and gun battles ignited by Sunday’s killing of Khan’s son, Aviation Minister Mirwais Sadiq.

A militia commander, who admitted responsibility for the killing, was missing Monday after Khan’s forces retook the commander’s division barracks and captured 150 of his men, Herat police chief Zia Mauddin Mahmud said.

Afghan Civil Aviation Minister Mirwais Sadiq 
Reuters file
Afghan Civil Aviation Minister Mirwais Sadiq  was assassinated on Sunday in the western province of Herat, provoking deadly tank and gun battles.

Another 500 men loyal to militia commander Zaher Naib Zada surrendered, Mahmud said.

Zada, before his telephone fell silent around midnight Sunday, said between 50 to 100 people had died in battles for control of the barracks. Mahmud put the toll at 50 to 60.

The assassination and the fighting between Zada’s and Khan’s men rocked the shaky U.S.-allied government of President Hamid Karzai, still trying to assert control nationwide in a country rife with regional warlords after two decades of war.

Karzai ordered the newly U.S.-trained Afghan troops to Herat after a late-night meeting with his security chiefs.

Big mission for new Afghan army
In one of the largest missions of Afghanistan’s new army, 600 soldiers departed Kabul’s airport for Herat on Monday, laden with bedrolls, ammunition belts, and rifles.

“We are going to keep the peace. We are not loyal to any side,” Afghan Maj. Abdul Qadir said as his fighters jogged out onto the airfield behind him.

The U.S. Embassy in Kabul on Monday urged all parties “to remain calm and abide by the rule of law and avoid further bloodshed.”

“Afghanistan must not let the success of the last two years be put in jeopardy,” the American statement said.

In Herat, shops were open and people returned to the streets, said aid workers, who spent the night hunkered indoors. U.N. workers had retreated to a bunker in their compound.

Two of the most powerful men of Karzai’s government, Defense Minister Mohammed Fahim and Interior Minister Ali Ahmad Jalali, flew into Herat on Monday morning — sent to try to investigate and calm the situation.

The Cabinet ministers went first to pay condolences to Khan, who has gone all but unseen and unheard since the killing of his son. Mahmud said Khan was uninjured, but in mourning.

Assassination attempt sparks fighting
Western diplomats, speaking on condition of anonymity, and Afghan generals said that Sunday’s fighting started with an assassination attempt against Khan.

Unknown assailants opened fire on Khan at a book-reading in a Herat park, killing two of his bodyguards, said Gen. Mir Jan in Kabul.

Sadiq went to Zada’s house to talk to him about the attempt, and was killed by a rocket-propelled grenade fired from a window in the home, Jan said. Police in Herat gave similar accounts.

However, Zada told AP that his forces had killed Sadiq in a confrontation, after the minister went to Zada’s home to fire him.

Afterward, Zada’s forces and soldiers loyal to Sadiq opened fire with machine guns, tanks and rockets for control of his division’s military barracks, he said.

The U.S. military at one point sent a B-1 bomber swooping over combatants “to help try to calm the fighting,” U.S. military spokesman Lt. Col. Bryan Hilferty said in Kabul. He called the fighting an “internal” matter and said he knew of no American plans to intervene. A U.S. post in Herat holds fewer than 100 personnel, including Americans, he said.

The U.S. Embassy in Kabul said Monday that German and Italian diplomats were sheltering at the U.S. post.

Karzai, who himself escaped a 2002 attempt on his life, said in a brief statement that he was “deeply shocked” by the killing and offered condolences to Ismail Khan.

Karzai’s first civil aviation minister, Abdul Rahman, was assassinated Feb. 14, 2002, at Kabul’s airport. Gunmen shot and killed Vice President Abdul Qadir in the capital on July 6, 2002.

Both of those killings remain unsolved.

Karzai’s government includes an uneasy alliance of former warlords who joined forces to help the United States rout the former Taliban government. His government still is trying to establish authority nationwide, including over Herat, a major port of entry on the Iranian border, and its customs revenue.

© 2012 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.


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