Afghan militias begin to pullout

Militia fighters began withdrawing from frontlines after days of heavy fighting near Afghanistan's main northern city on Friday after rival warlords agreed to a ceasefire.

    Is Afghanistan's fledgling national army tough enough to quell factional fighting?

    The warring factions said that the battle, which started on Wednesday, had claimed up to 80 casualties.

    The fighters had moved up to 20km from their earlier positions by Friday, a correspondent with French news agency AFP said.

    While the redeployment saw sporadic small arms fighting in some villages, the militia movements have been tense but largely peaceful with no deaths or injuries reported during the day.

    An uneasy calm settled over Mazar-i-Sharif, 310km (192 miles) north of Kabul, the morning after Interior Minister Ali Ahmad Jalali and British ambassador Ron Nash struck a deal between warring strongmen Atta Muhammad and Abd al-Rashid Dostam.

    Lip service to Kabul

    Muhammad's mostly Tajik Jamiat faction and Dostam's mainly Uzbek Junbish faction both profess loyalty to President Hamid Karzai, but are rivals for control of the north.

    The latest clashes, among the worst in six months, erupted Wednesday on the main road west of Mazar-i-Sharif towards Shibergan, Dostam's stronghold 120km (75 miles) away.

    Both sides used tanks and mortars in "very intense" fighting, a United Nations spokesman said, and by Thursday the clashes had moved to within 20km (12.4 miles) of the city.

    Muhammad's side reported 70 dead and injured fighters among its forces, while Dostam's side reported three dead and six wounded. The casualty tolls could not be independently confirmed.

    Hundreds of fighters were preparing to pull back from the frontlines early on Friday, witnesses told AFP.

    UN and British to broker peace

    Commanders of both sides were preparing to meet in the city's United Nations offices.

    The Karzai government is aiming to disarm 100,000 militiamen in an effort to curb clashes and dilute the power of warlords who hold sway over the provinces and pay only nominal allegiance to Kabul.

    Under a ceasefire hammered out by Jalali and the British envoy late on Thursday, each side was given 24 hours to pull their troops back.

    "In one day all soldiers must withdraw from the frontlines and maintain a distance of 40-50km (25-31 miles) between them," Jalali told reporters.

    The minister also announced plans to dispatch 300 police from the capital Kabul to secure Mazar-i-Sharif, where local police have been accused of taking sides.

    The ceasefire deal also foreshadows the establishment of a commission to probe the cause of the conflict and oversee the retreat by warring forces.

    The commission will be made up of officials from both factions, the UN and the British-run civil-military team helping with rebuilding and security in Mazar-i-Sharif.

    Muhammad and Dostam, a former communist general who is now deputy defence minister, have been vying for control of northern Afghanistan along with a third ethnic militia, the Hazaras' Hezb-i Wahdat.

    Dozens of people have been killed this year in factional clashes in the north.

    Afghan army prepares

    Militiamen such as those loyal to Dostam and Muhammad are the targets of an ambitious disarmament drive due to start later this month.

    The Karzai government is aiming to disarm 100,000 militiamen in an effort to curb clashes and dilute the power of warlords who hold sway over the provinces and pay only nominal allegiance to Kabul.

    Analysts however have warned the nascent army and police force are still too weak to either enforce the disarmament drive or take charge of national security.



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