- The Washington Times - Sunday, March 21, 2004

KABUL, Afghanistan — Soldiers loyal to a local commander fatally shot Afghanistan’s aviation minister yesterday in the western city of Herat, setting off factional fighting with guns and tanks in which as many as 100 people died.

In Kabul, Defense Minister Mohammed Fahim demanded an immediate cease-fire and ordered newly U.S.-trained Afghan National Army soldiers deployed from the capital to try to calm Herat.

The orders followed an emergency session of security chiefs of President Hamid Karzai’s shaky government, rocked by the killing of Mirwais Sadiq. He was the third top Karzai official and second aviation minister to die violently in office.

Presidential spokesman Khaleeq Ahmed said only that Mr. Sadiq — son of Herat’s powerful governor, Ismail Khan — had been shot in his car in circumstances that were not clear.

However, a top Herat military commander, Zaher Naib Zada, said by telephone last night that his forces had killed Mr. Sadiq in a confrontation after the minister went to Mr. Zada’s home to fire him.

Afterward, Mr. Zada’s forces and soldiers loyal to Mr. Sadiq opened battle with machine guns, tanks and rockets for control of a military barrack.

The commander said 50 to 100 soldiers were killed in the first hours of the battle, and that by early today, he was holding out with 700 men at the barracks against 3,000 fighters loyal to Mr. Sadiq.

“We are fighting at close range, with AK-47s and grenades,” the militia commander said.

Aid workers, also reached by telephone, reported gunfire and heavy explosions and said they had been ordered to stay indoors. Workers from the United Nations scrambled into a bunker at their headquarters.

A police officer, who uses the single name Fahim, gave an account different from that of Mr. Zada. Mr. Sadiq had gone to the residence to ask Mr. Zada about the killing of three civilians by his forces two days earlier, the officer said by telephone from the main police station.

Higher officials in Mr. Khan’s provincial government could not be reached for comment.

Mr. Karzai’s defense and interior ministers were preparing to travel to Herat to try to determine the circumstances of the killing and the battles that followed, said Mr. Ahmed, the spokesman.

U.S. forces at an American base in Herat manned defensive positions within their post, military spokesman Lt. Col. Bryan Hilferty said in Kabul.

Col. Hilferty called the fighting an “internal” matter and said he knew of no U.S. plans to intervene. The post holds fewer than 100 Americans, he said.

The president, who escaped an attempt on his life in 2002, said in a brief statement from Kabul that he was “deeply shocked” by the killing and offered condolences to the Herat governor. Mr. Sadiq had been widely viewed as his father’s representative in Mr. Karzai’s government.

Mr. Khan is a former anti-Soviet commander who runs a large private army and has had firm control over Herat since the fall of the hard-line Taliban regime in late 2001. But there have been persistent tensions — and occasional factional fighting — between his men and those loyal to rival warlords.

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