Rise in Violence in North Shows Afghanistan’s Fragility

Angry supporters of Gen. Abdul Rashid Dostum, the ethnic Uzbek strongman, clashed with the police in the northern town of Shiberghan on Monday, leaving at least seven people dead and 34 wounded, officials said. The government sent army units to the area, anticipating further unrest. Also in the north, a suicide bomber attacked a convoy of foreign security contractors, killing himself and two Afghan civilians. It was the fourth such attack in the north in the past two weeks. The bombings in the relatively peaceful north indicated a rise in insurgent activity, and the violence in Shiberghan was a reminder of how tenuous Afghanistan?s internal stability remains, with former militia leaders like General Dostum still capable of rallying armed supporters to settle local power struggles. A United Nations official said Monday that as many as 380 civilians had been killed in the conflict in Afghanistan in the first four months of 2007, and called on Western military forces and the Taliban to respect international humanitarian law and do more to avoid civilian casualties. “The protection and safety of civilians must come first and foremost,” Richard Bennett, the United Nations? top human rights officer in Afghanistan, said at a news briefing in Kabul. The conflict in Shiberghan began when more than 1,000 protesters from the youth movement of General Dostum’s political party, Junbesh-e-Milli, demanded that the provincial governor be removed, and tried to storm his office. Most of those killed and wounded were shot by the police as they tried to contain the crowd, townspeople said. Among the dead was the deputy leader of the Junbesh Youth Movement, said Rais Qurban, a resident. Another resident, Mujib-u-Rahman, said that NATO peacekeepers were present in the town and that fighter jets were heard overhead. But it was unclear what role the peacekeepers might have played, and NATO has made no statement about the episode. Mr. Rahman said by telephone that residents stayed off the streets, shops were closed and every square was full of soldiers. The crowd was protesting the arrest of six men for the attempted assassination of a legislator from the region, Ahmad Khan, who was a senior representative of Junbesh but recently split with General Dostum, an Interior Ministry statement said. The governor of Jowzjan Province, Juma Khan Hamdard, is a former ally of General Dostum?s who had fallen out with him over the arrests. Government officials accused General Dostum’s supporters of taking the law into their own hands and rioting under the guise of holding a demonstration. In a statement, the Interior Ministry said that the rioters fired on security forces, wounding four policemen, and that dozens of General Dostum’s armed supporters attacked the governor?s house and disarmed and beat guards. “We had received 41 patients in our main hospital,” Dr. Mirwais Amini, acting chief of public health for the province, said in a telephone interview. “Seven of them died in the hospital and two others are in critical condition.” Most of the wounded were young people with bullet wounds, he said. The provincial police chief, Gen. Khalil Aminzada, said Monday evening that the Afghan police and army were in control of the city, but that they were receiving reports from the villages that more than 500 people were preparing to attack the city. “The situation is very bad and we are waiting for an attack by Dostum’s supporters,” he said. President Hamid Karzai condemned the violence in a statement and ordered the army and the police to restore order. “It is the legitimate and constitutional right of every Afghan to take part in peaceful demonstrations, but these demonstrations must not turn violent and cause the breakdown of law and order in the country,” he said. General Dostum, a Soviet-trained general, has dominated his ethnic Uzbek region in northern Afghanistan for almost three decades, gaining a reputation for ruthlessness, both against his enemies and within his party and militia. His militia have been disarmed and he has been removed from official life, holding only the symbolic post of chief of staff for defense. But he remains a powerful presence in Jowzjan, his home province. The suicide attack on Monday, in Kunduz, was aimed at private security contractors who slowed for a speed bump, Agence France-Presse reported, quoting local police officials. It said the Taliban claimed responsibility for the attack. Two policemen were killed in a separate attack on a United Nations food convoy, Agence France-Presse said, citing officials. It said that in another attack in the south, which has been the center of Taliban activity, a NATO soldier was killed in an explosion and another soldier and an interpreter were wounded, citing a NATO statement.

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