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Afghan Leader Najibullah Forced to Resign by Rebels

By Mark Fineman
Los Angeles Times

New Delhi, India

Afghanistan's strongman Najibullah was forced to resign Thursday after four of his regime's top generals apparently joined hands with the country's most powerful rebel commander in a move that drove the ravaged nation closer to chaos.

Within hours of Najibullah's fall, Afghan Foreign Minister Abdul Wakil told reporters in Kabul that the 44-year-old president, whose family fled to New Delhi several days ago, was stripped of his power after he was stopped at the airport Thursday morning by rebel militiamen loyal to guerrilla commander Ahmad Shah Masood. One report from Moscow said that Najibullah was under arrest, but his whereabouts remained unknown Thursday night.

Sources in the ruling party say that a key presidential loyalist, Ghulam Farouq Yaqubi, who took over from Najibullah as chief of the dreaded secret police when the Soviets installed Najibullah as president six years ago, killed himself after learning of the takeover.

Wakil, a onetime Najibullah supporter who joined the dissidents for the coup, said that the ex-leader had been replaced by a ruling council of four vice presidents, whom he did not name. Other reports indicated that the generals held actual power and that the naming of the council was intended to cast the move as a smooth transition of government.

Early Friday, Kabul Radio gave conflicting reports. First, the official broadcast confirmed Wakil's version that Najibullah had been stopped at the airport just after midnight. Then, in a subsequent, lengthy broadcast, the radio commentator said that Najibullah had "illegally resigned" and that "stealthily, he fled."

Kabul Radio said the new ruling council was committed to U.N. efforts to end the nation's 13-year war, which has left more than a million dead, 5 million in exile and Afghanistan deeply divided along ethnic and ideological lines.

But the ouster of Najibullah, apparently the result of a slow-rolling coup that evolved over months of secret planning by dissidents within the army and the ruling party and by guerrilla leader Masood, appeared to have all but sabotaged an ambitious U.N. peace plan that was close to fruition.

Several international analysts who were consulted said that the events in Kabul were extremely fluid, and they warned that things could turn chaotic.

The U.S. government, which armed the guerrilla insurrection for years, reacted sharply to the takeover, with the U.S. State Department warning that Afghanistan may be fast slipping into anarchy. "Regime control is rapidly collapsing," said spokeswoman Margaret Tutwiler, who intensified an American call to all rebel factions to stop fighting and support the U.N. attempts for peace.

In a strong statement, Tutwiler declared that if the rebel factions began fighting each other along ethnic lines, "You could have chaos."

She implied that Najibullah will soon go into exile.

"We know that there are countries where he could seek asylum," she said. She did not elaborate, but a senior State Department official said later that Washington knew of specific countries that were ready to accept him.

Moscow, which had fought a proxy war with the United States in Afghanistan by arming the Kabul regime for more than a decade, likewise urged restraint. The Red Army invaded Afghanistan in 1979 and propped up successive strongmen there until pulling out the last of its 115,000 occupation troops early in 1989. Moscow and Washington agreed to stop arming the two sides as of the end of last year.

U.N. Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali called for calm in the troubled country, and the Security Council began private consultations on Afghanistan Thursday evening.

The U.N. plan, which would have set up an interim ruling council acceptable to both the regime forces and the more fundamentalist of the `moujahedeen,' the Muslim rebel groups, was to have arranged a transfer of power from Najibullah before the end of the month. Boutros-Ghali announced the results of nearly two years of painstaking shuttle diplomacy at a press conference last week in Geneva.

The secretary-general's special envoy on Afghanistan, Benon Sevan, who was in the final stages of selecting the interim council's 15 members this week, apparently had just left Kabul when the generals took over. Some initial reports said that Najibullah had taken temporary refuge in Sevan's office in Kabul, but U.N. officials denied those accounts.

There were fears that Najibullah's ouster would touch off widespread fighting in the capital, once it became clear which generals were behind the move. Senior ruling party officials said that the key figure in the power play was Mohammed Nabi Azimi, a Soviet-trained field commander who was serving as Najibullah's deputy defense minister. Azimi is a member of the country's Tajik majority, as are rebel commander Masood, Foreign Minister Wakil and several senior ruling party members who were also described as being behind the takeover.

Several of those officials indicated during interviews with the Los Angeles Times last month that just such a takeover was being plotted, stressing that Najibullah had no intention of giving up power peacefully as he had promised.