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Hundreds of Afghans Vent Rage on U.N. Offices

Governor's ouster spurs melee in Herat. Staff is evacuated, and dozens of protesters are hurt.

September 13, 2004|Hamida Ghafour | Special to The Times

KABUL, Afghanistan — Dozens of people were injured Sunday after hundreds of protesters took to the streets of a city in western Afghanistan, burning and looting United Nations offices in response to President Hamid Karzai's decision to remove a powerful warlord from his post as local governor.

American forces in Herat rescued about 30 U.N. employees from at least two compounds that were attacked by a crowd made up mostly of young people. Protesters were angry that Ismail Khan had been fired and offered a minor ministry post in Kabul, the capital.

No U.N. workers were reported injured, a spokesman for the world body said. Dozens of protesters were wounded by shrapnel and bullets in confrontations with Afghan army soldiers. There were unconfirmed reports Sunday night that at least two people had been killed.

Khan has repeatedly clashed with rival commanders, and skirmishes last month left dozens of people dead.

Observers said Karzai's move was designed to stop the factional fighting and give the Afghan leader more control over the west as the Oct. 9 presidential election draws closer.

Khan, who usually wears white clothing and rose-scented cologne, is known as the "Lion of Herat" for his role in resisting Soviet rule during the 1980s. He has exerted control over five western provinces, backed by a private army of thousands. A U.N. program seeks to disarm his fighters, but Khan has refused.

Sunday night he remained somewhat defiant, saying he would not take the offered position as minister of mines and industries but accepted that he was no longer governor.

"I have declined the job and want to stay in Herat as a private citizen," he said. "I am a man with a military capacity."

But as fighting continued throughout Sunday, Karzai urged Khan to accept his new job.

"Our expectation from our brother Ismail Khan is to serve his nation," the president said. "My advice to my brother is to take up the post in his own interest and in the interest of Afghanistan."

Karzai's newly appointed governor, Sayed Mohammed Khairkhwa, former ambassador to Ukraine, arrived Sunday and was sworn in during a brief ceremony in the presence of provincial officials as protesters were heard outside.

Western officials said the United States wanted the upcoming election to be viewed as free and fair, and that a warlord governor who had refused to accept the authority of Kabul might try to influence the vote.

On Sunday, about a dozen people broke down the gate to the Herat office of the U.N. Assistance Mission in Afghanistan, which is organizing the election, and set fire to vehicles, a security source said. The U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees building was set on fire and looted. Staff members from both offices were evacuated to the compound of a U.S.-run provincial reconstruction team in the city.

With American helicopters circling overhead, about 1,000 Afghan soldiers patrolled the streets and clashed with protesters who threw rocks and chanted, "Death to America, death to Karzai," an aid worker said by telephone.

"I can see flames and flashes of fire. The Afghan army is shooting at demonstrators, who are yelling they want Ismail Khan to stay," said the worker, who requested anonymity because of the dangerous situation. "There [is] also the sound of gunshots being fired."

Manoel de Almeida e Silva, the U.N. spokesman, said he expected that the new governor would restore calm.

"A crowd gathered and started going around town and broke through security and looted and ransacked some offices. Also they threw rocks and burned vehicles," he said. "We feel outraged. Nothing like this has ever happened to the U.N. in Afghanistan.... It is too early to say who has been doing it."

Two protesters were slightly injured when Afghan troops fired 40 to 50 shots on a crowd that was throwing rocks at two American soldiers who were stranded on a road after their vehicle broke down.

"One [protester] regrettably received a gunshot wound to his leg, and another was hit by a motorcycle leaving the scene," said a statement released in Kabul by U.S.-led military forces.

U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad, who had been a key negotiator in the last few months as factional fighting escalated, said a decision had been made that a change was needed in Herat after the battles in August between Khan's forces and those of a rival commander, Amanullah Khan, over an unused airport in the Shindand district, about 60 miles south of the city.

"There was a broad agreement in the aftermath of Shindand that change would be good," he said. "Some said wait after the elections; others said as soon as possible. An assessment was made.

"I've been in conversations with the former Gov. Ismail Khan," he added, "and he has promised to cooperate with the new governor."

He also said an investigation would be launched into recent human rights abuses, including kidnapping and home invasions.

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