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Mediators Seek Truce to End Fighting Between Factions

By Jeffrey Gettleman
LOS ANGELES TIMES -- TASHQURGHAN, AFGHANISTAN

Mediators shuttled between Uzbek and Tajik commanders Monday trying to hammer out a truce after a factional clash killed eight people and wounded 30 in this northern Afghan town.

The fighting poked a hole in the paper-thin sense of peace here and raised tensions between the region’s most powerful warlords, the same ones who had fought together as members of the Northern Alliance.

“When we had to face one enemy, we did fine,” said Gholam Sakhi Mourtazar, a police commissioner and one of the mediators. “But now the bigger groups want all the power and the rest of us to disappear. It’s like the old days.”

Ata Mohammed, the leading Tajik warlord, dismissed such talk with the wave of a hand.

“What we had was just a little problem between local leaders, nothing bigger,” he said.

It’s not clear what sparked the fighting, which took place Saturday and Sunday 25 miles east of Mazar-e-Sharif. Some said it was the defection of commanders from one warlord to another. Others blamed tensions over disarmament.

A third reason centered on a local commander who stole sheep and shot a dog.

Whatever the cause, the Tashqurghan melee marked the deepest fissure yet within the Northern Alliance, the U.S.-backed coalition that launched the rout of the Taliban last fall. There have been sporadic battles in other areas of Afghanistan since the Taliban collapsed. But not until this weekend have large numbers of alliance troops unleashed their considerable firepower on each other.

Shells sailed over the town’s market, machine guns ripped through stalls selling raisins, spices, saddles and cloth, and one local employee of an aid organization was felled by a stray bullet.

Witnesses said a group of U.S. Special Forces soldiers, who have been providing protection for leaders of three main alliance factions, was nearly caught in the cross-fire.

“The bullets went right over their truck,” said Abdul Qaddir, director of security for Tashqurghan and the surrounding area. “We were very relieved.”

Several American soldiers interviewed in Mazar-e-Sharif said they weren’t allowed to talk about the incident.

The clash comes at a time when a new police force in Mazar-e-Sharif tries to trim down the number of armed men on the streets and install a sense of order. Gun checks at city limits have helped -- somewhat. But hundreds of gunmen still stroll around the city, and there’s a growing disillusionment with the interim government in Kabul, which seems a world away.

Different factions tell different stories about the trouble in Tashqurghan, a small town on the edge of a steppe where farmers shop for supplies and nomads bring their camels for a drink.

According to Tajik leaders, Uzbek troops attacked their positions after three commanders from the Uzbek-led Jambish party defected to the Tajik-led Jamiat party.