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60 said killed as Afghan disarmament signed
( 2003-10-09 09:22) (Agencies)

Dozens of people were reported killed or wounded in fighting on Wednesday between pro-government factions in northern Afghanistan as a deal was signed on a key U.N.-backed plan to demobilize warlord armies.

The security commander in the northern capital of Mazar-i-Sharif declared a night-time curfew there after the clashes west of the city between Jamiat and Junbish forces, made up mainly of rival ethnic groups in the volatile region.

Rival commanders said more than 50 people were killed and wounded in the clashes which came as the Defense Ministry, the United Nations and Japan signed an agreement in Kabul on an ambitious plan to demobilize 100,000 factional fighters.

The clashes between warlord militias, seen as the main threat to President Hamid Karzai's efforts to extend his influence into unruly provinces, was among the worst since the overthrow of the Taliban regime by U.S.-led forces in late 2001.

The flare up followed reports that U.S. forces in the south had held talks with officials of the former Taliban, whose guerrilla fighters they have been battling since its overthrow.

Karzai and a senior U.S. official denied reports on Wednesday that former Taliban Foreign Minister Mullah Wakil Ahmed Muttawakil had been freed from U.S. custody as part of the talks.

But an Afghan Foreign Ministry official in the south stuck by his original story that Muttawakil had been freed after helping to arrange the talks in the southern city of Kandahar.

"Time will prove that he has been released," he told Reuters.

"This is not true, this is absolutely not true, he has not been released," Karzai told reporters in Kabul, standing alongside U.S. special envoy to Afghanistan Zalmay Khalilzad.

"Is this true?" he asked Khalilzad, who replied: "No, we have not released him yet."


A spokesman for the hardline Taliban, blamed for a wave of deadly attacks since August, told Reuters Muttawakil had contacted the Taliban on Wednesday for "secret talks."

Mullah Abdul Samad added that the former minister, considered a moderate who was handed over to U.S. forces after surrendering last year, was making contact "at the behest of the Americans."

U.S. military spokesman Colonel Rodney Davis declined to comment, saying it was a matter for the Afghan authorities, an indication perhaps Muttawakil was no longer in U.S. custody.

Davis said he had read a report that Federal Bureau of Investigation officers had met "anti-coalition elements," but again could not confirm it.

Some Taliban officials told Reuters they had reports the talks may have involved the Taliban's former Interior Minister Mullah Abdul Razzak acting without consent of the organization's elusive supreme leader Mullah Mohammad Omar.

Supreme Court Chief Justice Mawlavi Fazi Hadi Shinwari said it was government policy to leave the door open for Taliban whose hands were "not tainted with the blood of Muslims" and that Kabul had received a list of 30 Taliban members who wished to talk.

He told Reuters the group's former deputy justice minister, Mawlavi Jalaluddin Shinwari, had already joined the government after holding talks in Kabul.

Analysts say that by leaving the door open to Taliban moderates, Karzai has sought to draw support away from militants in the group's southern heartlands.

The United States, meanwhile, wants to divert more resources from its battle against Taliban and al Qaeda into vital post-war reconstruction, which has been severely disrupted in the south by Taliban guerrilla attacks.

The Taliban, for their part, have suffered severe mauling in recent weeks in battles with the 11,500-strong U.S.-led foreign force in the country, even though most top leaders, including Mullah Omar, have evaded capture.

Fighting in the north between two factions led by officials of his own government will be an unwelcome additional headache for Karzai as he tries to launch the ambitious disarmament plan, seen as crucial to extending his authority and speeding up post- war reconstruction.

The Japanese-led plan has suffered repeated delays, but is due to start in the northern province of Kunduz on October 25.

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