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Aid Workers Caught in Crossfire : As Afghan Peace Nears, Rebels Battle for Power

February 10, 1988|RONE TEMPEST | Times Staff Writer

PESHAWAR, Pakistan — As talk of a potential settlement in the 8-year-old war in Afghanistan increases here, the loosely affiliated Afghan rebels, known collectively as the moujahedeen, or holy warriors, are engaged in a contest for postwar primacy that has foreign journalists and aid workers caught in the crossfire.

In September, one of the largest rebel groups in Afghanistan hijacked a French medical relief mission headed for Badakhshan province. The group, known as the Hizb-i-Islami, held seven French doctors and three relief workers captive for 10 days and confiscated their pack train and $70,000 worth of medicines consigned to a clandestine French hospital in Badakhshan province.

In October and December, two other French aid missions were intercepted by the Hizb-i-Islami. In one incident, near the village of Kantiwah in the Nuristan district, the equivalent of more than $100,000 in Afghan currency was taken from the French group.

In January, a British woman charged here that her husband, a free-lance cameraman on an assignment for the British Broadcasting Corp., had been robbed and killed by the Hizb-i-Islami, also near Kantiwah.

What these incidents have in common is that the victims were all intercepted by the Hizb-i-Islami as they were headed for an area controlled by a rival rebel group, the Jamiat-i-Islami.

The Hizb-i-Islami and the Jamiat-i-Islami are probably the two strongest of the Afghan rebel groups that for eight years have been fighting Soviet troops and Soviet-backed Afghan government troops.

They are also enemies in a power struggle that pits fundamentalist Islamic forces against more moderate elements in the Afghan resistance.

Battle for Weapons, Cash

On another level, the internecine battle is for a greater share of the millions of dollars in cash and weapons that the United States provides to the rebels. Last year, the United States, with the support of China and Saudi Arabia, gave the Afghan rebels equipment valued at more than $600 million, including Stinger ground-to-air missiles.

"Now is a bad time to be in Afghanistan because the different parties imagine a solution in sight," Eduard Lagourgue, a leader with the French aid organization Guilde du Raid, told a reporter. "The fighting between them is now very hot, particularly between the moderates and the fundamentalists."

The atmosphere of suspicion and hatred among the rebel groups has tarnished the image of cohesion and unified cause they wish to project through such organizations as the seven-party alliance that includes both the Hizb-i-Islami and Jamiat-i-Islami.

Postwar Struggle Possible

The fighting and angry words lend credence to the idea that if the war is settled, a war in which a million or more Afghans may have been killed already, a blood bath will follow as leaders of the various groups fight it out for supremacy.

Various rebel factions often charge tolls when others travel through their territory, and ammunition shipments are considered a particularly good source of revenue.

Lagourgue said that on a recent six-week trip to the Bamian district in central Afghanistan, he passed through 45 checkpoints manned by the men of 15 different groups of the moujahedeen. He said his rebel escorts, who were attached to an ammunition supply train of the Jamiat-i-Islami, had to pay a total of 1 million afghanis--the equivalent, at an unofficial rate of exchange, of $65,000--in tolls at the 45 checkpoints.

Along the way, he said, he saw a fierce fight between Jamiat-i-Islami and Hizb-i-Islami forces, but no fighting against the Soviets.

"The only party fighting the Soviets is the Harakat-i-Inqilab-i-Islami," he said. "The others are all fighting each other."

Accusations Traded

Leaders of the Hizb-i-Islami accuse the most famous commander of the Jamiat-i-Islami, Ahmad Shah Massoud, of killing six Hizb-i-Islami commanders. Nawab Salim, a spokesman for the Hizb-i-Islami, said: "Massoud attacks us in the northern areas of Afghanistan. He killed six of our commanders. Otherwise, he is a gentleman."

Leaders of the Jamiat-i-Islami accuse the Hizb-i-Islami of stealing money and supplies, including the French medicines bound for area controlled by the Jamiat-i-Islami.

Reports of fighting among the main rebel groups--there are seven of them--are nearly as common as reports of battles with the Soviet and Afghan government forces. Caught in the middle are the journalists and volunteer foreign aid missions that operate clandestinely in Afghanistan. Scores of French medical and agricultural specialists live and work in Afghanistan, for the most part in territory controlled by the Jamiat-i-Islami.

U.S. Aid Affected

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