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Tensions Mounting in Herat

Arrests and executions reported in western city following a clash between governor Ismail Khan and a local army commander.
By Rahimullah Samander

Reports of executions, arrests, disappearances and demonstrations continue to flow out of the western provincial capital of Herat, following last week's violent clashes in the city.


The deteriorating situation is a clear indication that the smouldering hostilities there are far from resolved, and potential remains for further violence.


A week ago, a council of religious leaders reportedly called for the expulsion of all journalists from the city, claiming that the press has been too critical of Herat's governor, former mujahedin leader Ismail Khan.


Zahir Nayebzada, the local military commander who fled following a clash with Ismail Khan’s forces, claimed that up to 50 of his soldiers who were injured in the fighting were subsequently killed, according to reporters who have talked with him.


These deaths are in addition to the 25 soldiers he says were killed during the initial fighting.


Ismail Khan’s forces and secret police continue to search the city, journalists said, arresting shopkeepers known to be from Nayebzada’s home province of Badghis, which is immediately north of Herat province.


At least one militia checkpoint has been set up at the border between the two provinces on the road that connects the provincial capitals. People travelling from Badghis to Herat have reportedly been pulled from their cars, and arrested, according to eyewitness accounts. Their whereabouts remain unknown. Some cars have been confiscated, according to drivers who contacted journalists in Herat.


On March 29, Ismail Khan’s supporters took to the streets and called for Nayebzada’s arrest. Eyewitnesses said the demonstrators complained that the government of President Hamed Karzai has been too slow to act against the military commander, and vowed to hunt him down themselves if the Kabul failed to act. They also demanded that Nayebzada be replaced by someone from Herat.


Efforts to contact Ismail Khan’s spokesman have been unsuccessful.


In an exclusive interview with IWPR on March 31, Afghanistan's deputy interior minister, General Hilaluddin Hilal, called Ismail Khan a “dictator”, and said there is a growing gulf between the people of Herat and the governor.


“People living in Herat do not accept his extremism,” said Hilal, who accused Ismail Khan of acting as both judge and executioner since the clashes.


“There is now a government in Afghanistan,” he said, contrasting this with the behaviour of Ismail Khan’s supporters, who he said were acting like the religious police under the Taleban.


The deputy minister said he believed Ismail Khan was getting bad advice from some local figures, who are driving a wedge between him and the central government.


Hilal said he suspected the death toll from the initial clash was higher than initially reported, because Nayebzada had several hundred men in his garrison and many are still missing.


The fighting began about 10 days ago following a clash between Mirwais Sadiq, Ismail Khan’s son and the Afghan aviation minister, and Nayebzada, the local commander of a garrison of the Afghan National Army.


Sadiq reportedly confronted Nayebzada at the army commander’s compound following a reported attempt on his father's life. Fighting erupted and Sadiq was killed by a rocket-propelled grenade.


Forces loyal to Ismail Khan, an Islamic hardliner and a member of the conservative Jamiat-e-Islami Party, launched a full-scale assault on Nayebzada’s headquarters. The building was destroyed, and Nayebzada fled to Badghis, where he remains in hiding.


The government has put out a different version of events: in a press release it said the fighting began over a traffic accident involving Nayebzada’s forces and Sadiq. In the subsequent clashes, Faizal Alavi, the head of national security and intelligence in Herat, was also injured.


The Karzai administration has insisted that Nayebzada acted alone, despite initial reports that he was acting with the knowledge of the central government.


Roy Glover, a spokesman for the US embassy in Kabul, said officials continue to monitor the situation. “The embassy is following it,” he said. “We’re staying in close touch with all the parties involved.”


Glover was reluctant to say that the situation was deteriorating, but acknowledged that it’s “not getting a lot better,” and characterised current conditions as “an uneasy truce”. The US maintains a garrison of about 100 special forces troops in Herat assigned to a Provincial Reconstruction Team, one of the military units assigned to protect development and rebuilding in the region.


Shortly after the initial conflict, Karzai sent two cabinet ministers to attend Sadiq’s funeral and to investigate the fighting. He also dispatched about 1,500 soldiers from Afghanistan’s new army to the province.


Dr. Mohammed Arif, a spokesman for the president in Kabul, said the government delegation is continuing its investigation. He said that the army continues to patrol the streets of Herat, despite demonstrations against its presence.


Arif also confirmed that the government investigators had obtained the release of 110 people who had been detained or were part of the captured military force. More that 65 people remain in prison there, he said.


Karzai and Ismail Khan reportedly have been at odds over the latter's reluctance to turn over millions of dollars in customs revenues collected from the vast amount of goods that enter Afghanistan from Iran through Herat.


Karzai is currently is in Berlin, seeking 27 billion US dollars in aid at an international conference of donor nations.


Rahimullah Samander is a journalism trainer for IWPR in Kabul. Journalists in Herat also contributed to this report.


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