Shootout Wrecks Downtown Hotel in Kabul
KABUL, Afghanistan (AP) _ Iranian-backed guerrillas battled bodyguards of President-designate Burhanuddin Rabbani overnight, days before the scheduled transfer of power in Kabul, a witness said today.
Twenty people died in the fighting at the downtown hotel where the guards were quartered, said the hotel’s owner, Taher Faizi.
The battle was the latest among factions locked in a power struggle since rebels toppled the Soviet-installed government of President Najibullah in April, ending a 14-year civil war. Hundreds have died in the feuding.
Witnesses said the latest clash began Wednesday night after the guards, followers of Defense Minister Ahmed Shah Masood, tried to stop two carloads of heavily armed pro-Iranian Hezb-e-Wahadat guerrillas who apparently tried to run a roadblock.
Rabbani, a former theology professor whose Jamiat-e-Islami faction orchestrated Najibullah’s fall, is due to assume the caretaker presidency Sunday. Faizi said the Jamiat men quartered at the hotel were members of Rabbani’s security unit.
Sibghatullah Mojaddidi, the current caretaker president, has been wavering over whether he will yield to Rabbani as called for by a power-sharing agreement the major guerrilla factions signed after Najibullah’s government collapsed.
On Wednesday, Mojaddidi announced he would surrender the presidency today and let other chiefs pick Afghanistan’s next leader. But he backpedaled later in the day, saying the transfer would be delayed because no one was in Kabul to take the tiller.
Rabbani, who had been in Saudi Arabia for the pilgrimage to Mecca, was due to fly back to Kabul from Pakistan today.
There are fears the transition will be violent. Mojaddidi and Rabbani are openly feuding, and serious rifts divide other guerrilla leaders.
Fighting earlier Wednesday between a fundamentalist Muslim faction and a pro-government Uzbek militia killed at least 18 and wounded dozens. On Tuesday night, Massood’s men clashed with Uzbek militiamen, their allies and partners in the governing council. No casualty count was reported.
Faizi said about 10 of Masood’s men were present when the battle began at his hotel Wednesday night. But the pro-Iranian guerrillas were reinforced by comrades who occupy the nearby Interior Ministry. Faizi estimated they fired 30 anti-tank rockets into the Mustafa Hotel to drive out Masood’s men.
The attackers fought their way into the building, looting an ammunition storage room, but withdrew when the Defense Ministry sent hundreds of reinforcements, witnesses said.
The Defense Ministry confirmed the battle but did not issue a casualty count.