KABUL, Afghanistan — The Afghan civil aviation minister was killed Sunday in the western province of Herat, sparking a fierce battle between rival military factions in a region that had been known for its stability.
The violence left dozens of people wounded or killed, according to early reports from the scene, and served as the latest reminder that the central government of President Hamid Karzai has little ability to reign in the warlords and competing militias that control much of the country outside Kabul, the capital.
Witnesses said dozens of people were lying injured on the streets of Herat city after Mir Wais Sadeq -- the son of its powerful provincial governor, Ismail Khan -- was killed. Some reports said as many as 100 people were dead, but the figure could not be confirmed.
Sadeq, in his late 30s, is the third minister in the troubled Afghan administration to be assassinated in the last two years. Karzai convened an emergency meeting of his national security team on Sunday, and a government spokesman said Afghan troops were being deployed to secure the city.
The sequence of events that triggered the violence remained unclear. Some Afghan authorities said Sadeq was killed in an assassination attempt on his father, Khan, a warlord who commands thousands of men in his private army in western Afghanistan. But others offered conflicting accounts, and the U.S. Embassy in Kabul released a statement Sunday saying that "it appears the violence began as a traffic incident and then escalated."
Shah Wali, an Afghan intelligence official, said the man responsible for the attacks was Zahir Nayabzada, a rival of Khan who was recently appointed by Karzai as a senior military commander in the province.
In interviews with news agencies Sunday, Nayabzada said that his forces had killed Sadeq after the aviation minister came to his house and attempted to relieve him of his command. Nayabzada said Sadeq had broken into his house earlier in the day.
"[He] broke into my house and started the fighting there," Nayabzada told Reuters news service. "I did not kill Sadeq in an ambush. He was killed in a clash afterward."
A witness told The Times that Herat resembled a war zone for several hours Sunday afternoon as soldiers loyal to Khan and the corps commanded by Nayabzada began fighting.
"There are military vehicles everywhere," the witness said. "In the afternoon you could hear rocket launchers and small guns being fired. There were people on the streets lying injured or dead."
The fighting erupted near German diplomatic offices, and German officials were evacuated by U.S. and coalition forces to a nearby military compound. A U.S. military spokesman in Kabul said the compound was home to about 100 coalition troops and aid workers that form one of the so-called provisional reconstruction teams created to foster stability in areas beyond the control of the central government.
The Italian ambassador to Afghanistan, who was visiting Herat, was taken safely to the reconstruction team site, the embassy statement said. "There are no reports of U.S. personnel being injured or involved in any of the fighting," the statement said.
The outbreak of violence surprised some officials, who noted that most of the factional fighting -- as well as recent incursions by supporters of the ousted Taliban government -- has been focused in the southern and eastern parts of Afghanistan.
"Herat has not been a trouble spot; it's been a relatively quiet part of the country," said Lt. Col. Bryan Hilferty, a U.S. military spokesman in Kabul.
Hilferty said he knew of no plans to send U.S. or coalition troops to the area. "We're monitoring the situation," he said.
Khaliq Ahmed, a spokesman for Karzai, said it was not clear when Afghan soldiers would arrive in Herat. "We are also sending a delegation to Herat to investigate," he said, adding that Defense Minister Mohammed Qassim Fahim and Interior Minister Ali Jalali were part of the delegation.
"It is a very bad situation," Ahmed said. "We can't get in contact with the governor. The minister of defense has called for a cease-fire, and those who have broken the law will be brought to justice."
Sadeq was not a well-known figure in the central government and was noted for little besides a hot temper. He was viewed as his father's representative in Kabul.
He is the second aviation minister to be killed while in office. In February 2002, Abdul Rahman was mobbed by pilgrims angry that they could not travel to Mecca. Karzai, who survived an assassination attempt in 2002, is typically surrounded by about 16 armed bodyguards.
In a statement, Karzai said he was "deeply shocked" by the killing and offered condolences to Khan.
Sadeq has two daughters and went to France during the civil war in the 1990s. His father fought against the Soviet occupation and then the Taliban, which imprisoned him for three years.