NEW DELHI — Afghanistan's strongman Najibullah was forced to resign Thursday after four of his regime's top generals apparently joined hands with the country's most powerful rebel commander in a move that drove the ravaged nation closer to chaos.
Within hours of Najibullah's fall, Afghan Foreign Minister Abdul Wakil told reporters in Kabul that the 44-year-old president, whose family fled to New Delhi several days ago, was stripped of his power after he was stopped at the airport Thursday morning by rebel militiamen loyal to guerrilla commander Ahmed Shah Masoud.
One report from Moscow said that Najibullah was under arrest, but his whereabouts remained unknown Thursday night.
According to sources in the ruling party, a key presidential loyalist, Ghulam Farouq Yaqubi, who took over from Najibullah as chief of the dreaded secret police when the Soviets installed Najibullah as president six years ago, killed himself after learning of the takeover.
Wakil, a onetime Najibullah supporter who joined the dissidents for the coup, said the former leader had been replaced by a ruling council of four vice presidents, whom he did not name. Other reports indicated that the generals held actual power and that the naming of the council was intended to cast the move as a smooth transition of government.
Early today, Kabul Radio gave conflicting reports. First, the official broadcast confirmed Wakil's version that Najibullah had been stopped at the airport just after midnight. Then, in a subsequent, lengthy broadcast, the radio commentator asserted that Najibullah "illegally resigned" and that "stealthily, he fled."
Kabul Radio said the new ruling council is committed to U.N. efforts to end the nation's 13-year war, which has left more than a million dead, 5 million in exile and Afghanistan deeply divided along ethnic and ideological lines.
But the ouster of Najibullah--apparently the result of a slow-rolling coup that evolved over months of secret planning by dissidents in the army and the ruling party and by guerrilla leader Masoud--appeared to have all but sabotaged an ambitious U.N. peace plan that was close to fruition.
Several international analysts who were consulted said the events in Kabul were extremely fluid, and they warned that things could turn chaotic.
The U.S. government, which armed the guerrilla insurrection for years, reacted sharply to the takeover, with the State Department warning that Afghanistan may be fast slipping into anarchy. "Regime control is rapidly collapsing," said spokeswoman Margaret Tutwiler, who intensified an American call to all rebel factions to stop fighting and support the U.N. attempts for peace.
In a strong statement, Tutwiler declared that if the rebel factions begin fighting each other along ethnic lines, "You could have chaos."
She implied that Najibullah will soon go into exile.
"We know that there are countries where he could seek asylum," she said. She did not elaborate, but a senior State Department official said later that Washington knows of specific countries that are ready to accept him.
Moscow, which had fought a proxy war with Washington in Afghanistan by arming the Kabul regime for more than a decade, likewise urged restraint. The Soviet army invaded Afghanistan in December, 1979, and propped up successive strongmen there until pulling out the last of its estimated 115,000 troops early in 1989. Moscow and Washington agreed to stop arming the two sides as of the end of last year.
U.N. Secretary General Boutros Boutros-Ghali called for calm in the troubled country, and the Security Council began private consultations on Afghanistan on Thursday evening.
The U.N. plan, which would have set up an interim ruling council acceptable to both the regime forces and the more fundamentalist of the \o7 moujahedeen, \f7 the Muslim rebel groups, was to have arranged a transfer of power from Najibullah before the end of the month. Boutros-Ghali announced the results of nearly two years of painstaking shuttle diplomacy at a press conference last week in Geneva.
The secretary general's special envoy on Afghanistan, Benon Sevan, who was in the final stages of selecting the interim council's 15 members this week, apparently had just left Kabul when the generals took over. Some initial reports said Najibullah had taken temporary refuge in Sevan's office in Kabul, but U.N. officials denied those accounts.
There was no public comment from Sevan during the day. According to some reports, he flew back to the Afghan capital Thursday night and was negotiating with the nation's new leaders.