Cease-fire holds in Afghanistan

/ Source: The Associated Press

Warring militias held to a cease-fire in western Afghanistan on Wednesday, allowing them to bring out dead and wounded soldiers after a five-day battle.

Soldiers from the new Afghan national army stood between the two warlord forces and the U.S. military was also poised to help tackle any renewed fighting. Dozens have been killed in the fighting which broke out last week between Herat Gov. Ismail Khan, a powerful regional leader, and a local rival.

The fighting has alarmed Kabul and United Nations underscoring the need to improve security ahead of landmark elections. Afghan and American officials negotiated a truce Tuesday between Khan’s forces and forces loyal to Amanullah, a local Pashtun warlord, who goes by only one name.

With the guns silent, the bodies of seven soldiers were brought to Herat city on Tuesday evening, said Ziauddin Mahmoudi, the provincial police chief, as Afghanistan celebrated it Independence Day.

The deaths brought the number of people reported killed to 32, most of them from Khan’s Tajik-dominated force, including three evacuated from the battlefield by the international Red Cross.

Amanullah said 11 of his men were wounded in the latest fighting and disputed claims of high losses among his enemies.

“I saw only one dead soldier,” he told The Associated Press. “There was no massacre.”

Amanullah’s fighters seized a Soviet-era air base on Friday night and fought their way to within sight of the provincial capital, sowing fear in the city and underlining Afghanistans’ shaky security more than two years after the fall of the Taliban.

They pulled back only after U.S. warplanes took to the skies and the American ambassador warned the protagonists they faced a bleak future if the fighting didn’t stop.

President Hamid Karzai has rushed hundreds of troops from the Afghan National Army to the air base to act as a buffer force while Kabul officials investigate.

Soldiers from the new U.S.-trained force paraded before a smiling Karzai on Wednesday in a Kabul sports stadium to mark the 85th anniversary of Afghanistan’s independence from Britain.

But Karzai acknowledged his reliance on U.S. and NATO forces to bolster security, particularly in the run-up to the country’s first-ever presidential election on Oct. 9.

The American military, which is focused on battling Taliban militants in the south and east, applauded the quick dispatch of government forces to Herat, adding in a statement that it stood ready to help “as requested and needed.”

Spokesman Maj. Rick Peat said American planes had conducted “flyovers” during the fighting on Tuesday, but that there had been no need for air strikes.

Meanwhile, U.S. and Afghan forces fought militants in two troubled southeastern provinces Wednesday, leaving four people dead and two injured, officials said.

Three Taliban and one Afghan soldier died in a clash which erupted when troops investigated reports that rebels had gathered in southeastern Ghazni province, said Gov. Haji Asadullah Khalid.

Afghan and U.S. forces backed by helicopters also fought a four-and-a-half-hour battle with insurgents in eastern Kunar province, the American military said.

Eleven insurgents, two of whom were wounded, were detained during the battle near the village of Nangarlam, where American forces have a small base.

More than 700 people have died across Afghanistan this year, including scores of militants and Afghan security forces in the country’s insurgency-plagued south and east.