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Northern Militias Hand Over Tanks
The two main militias in northern Afghanistan have handed over more than 30 armoured vehicles to be mothballed as the first step in a process of disarmament.
General Abdul Rashid Dostum, leader of the Junbesh-e-Milli-e-Islami movement, and General Atta Mohammed, a Jamiat-e-Islami faction commander, gave orders for the tanks and other vehicles to be taken to secure sites outside the city of Mazar-e-Sharif.
Troops from the new Afghan National Army, ANA, will guard the two storage parks, one north of the city for Dostum's heavy weapons and the other to the west where Atta Mohammad's tanks will be held.
Last month, the Afghan transitional government ordered the two warlords to give up their rival military forces - which have clashed repeatedly in recent months - to be merged into a single unit and incorporated into the ANA under a neutral commander.
"We will implement the process of DDR [disarmament, demobilisation and reintegration] in the coming days, and collecting heavy weapons is the start of the process, which will be successfully carried out," said Afghan interior minister Ali Ahmad Jalali, who flew to Mazar-e-Sharif for talks with the two commanders.
"This is not a time for factions - it is the time to form a national army," he said.
Jalali has been overseeing the government's effort to take control in the area around Mazar-e-Sharif, negotiating a truce in early October after renewed fighting between the two militias, and then imposing Kabul's terms on the two leaders.
Colonel Dickie Davies, head of the British provincial reconstruction team, PRT, in Mazar-e-Sharif, which is helping to oversee the process, said, "This is a positive step taken by the government towards stability. The process is running on well, and I hope that all the weapons are collected in the next few weeks."
The handover - which began on November 21 and is due to last two weeks - concerns all weapons with a calibre of more than 14.5 mm, which includes tanks, artillery and rocket and grenade launchers. No small arms or ammunition are being collected at this stage.
Jamiat forces handed over 33 tanks, and promised to submit more weapons during the handover period. Dostum's forces gave in three tanks late in the day, blaming what they said were "logistical problems" for the small number.
As the tanks trundled through the streets heading for their new homes outside the city, they destroyed two shops and wrecked several cars. The owners have demanded compensation.
The tanks had their guns decommissioned by having their lock pins removed. Heavy guns will have their firing pins taken out. The weapons will be secured in two separate sites with a wire perimeter fence and watchtowers, and guarded by ANA troops.
The British PRT says it does not know how many heavy weapons each side holds, and will be conducting patrols to try to find out. But it expects at least 10 tanks to be handed over from each side.
After talks with Jalali, Dostum appeared sullen and declined to speak to journalists, except to say that he was in agreement with the disarmament process. "I agree with whatever the interior minister says - I don't have any remarks," he said.
General Atta Mohammad, meanwhile, was in buoyant mood. "We agree to whatever the minister and the government decide, and I agree to the two military corps being merged," he said.
Analysts say the contrast in mood between the two men is explained by the fact that it is Atta who now appears to be winning the tactical battle in the rivals' long-running feud. He can go and work in the defence ministry in Kabul for his political ally, Defence Minister Mohammad Qasim Fahim, who has army corps in other provinces. Dostum, on the other hand, has only the one corps in the north which is now being forced to disarm, so his power base is shrinking and he appears to have nowhere to go.
However, Dostum remains security and defence adviser to President Hamed Karzai, and there is speculation that he may be offered a top job in government as a reward for his co-operation on disarmament. Whether he will be happy with this, after years as north-central Afghanistan's leader is another matter.
"This is going to be a very important few weeks in the security of the northern provinces which, if successful, should mean an end to the kind of factional tension we saw in early October," said Captain Tom Barker, spokesman for the British PRT, referring to the outbreak of fighting between Dostum's and Atta Mohammad's forces.
"The key thing is that if this method of disarmament is successful, it can be used throughout Afghanistan."
Brigadier-General Mohammad Amir Baqahy, who is responsible for the DDR process in northern Afghanistan, told IWPR, "Today we are collecting the heavy weapons of the two military corps. This is the start of the process. In the DDR process we will reward those who hand in their guns."
The next phase of DDR - planned for early December - involves disarming and registering around 1,000 soldiers in the region, and then offering them the chance to join retraining programmes so that they can go back to civilian life. The process is already well under way in Kunduz in north-eastern Afghanistan and in Gardez in the south.
Mazar-e-Sharif will be the third of six areas taking part in the scheme, which is a pilot for a full-scale disarmament process aimed at an estimated 100,000 soldiers across the country.
For the people of Mazar-e-Sharif - weary of war and lack of security - news of the hand-over of tanks was welcome.
Reflecting the public mood, Khalid, a 23-year-old teacher in the city, said, "We are very happy that they are getting rid of weapons so that we can live peacefully without clashes."
Ahmad Nahim is an IWPR contributor in Mazar-e-Sharif.
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