PESHAWAR: At least 60 people were killed in two days of fierce fighting for the control of Gardez in Paktia province, reports said Thursday.
The clashes, representing a setback for the new interim government which has failed so far to enforce its writ beyond Kabul, has created a sense of insecurity in the town.
People are leaving Gardez as the power battle between Saifullah and Badshah Khan continue, according to reports reaching here from across the border.
Saifullah is an influential tribesman enjoying popular support in the area, while Badshah Khan Zadran has been named by the interim administration led by Hamid Karzai. Forces loyal to them have locked horns for holding sway over Gardez.
Badshah Khan is reported to have fled the town as his forces surrendered to the local fighters.
Reports say that for two days, the two factions exchanged heavy machine-gun and rocket fire - smoke arose from residential areas where people tried to shelter.
Badshah Khan's men rocketed Gardez from outside positions but the local shura remained in control of the majority of the town.
Though the US warplanes circled overhead and their special forces stationed nearby but refrained from taking any action.
Even the government forces were also present, but remained neutral and, significantly, they did not back the Kabul-appointed governor.
So far, about 60 people have been reported killed and 200 taken hostage.
Following the collapse of the Taleban the people of Gardez had chosen Saifullah and a council or shura to govern the province.
But the interim government appointed Badshah Khan Zadran - a warlord from a neighbouring province - to take control instead.
He was rejected by the local people, who last week staged demonstrations against his appointment.
Karzai will have to bear some responsibility as Badshah Khan is a close ally to the government and an appointee by interim leader Hamid Karzai. The rejection of Badsha Khan Zadran by the local people as governor is a sign of Karzai’s wrong appointment.
Badshah Khan alleges that the Gardez council is sympathetic to the Taliban and al-Qaeda, something which council members deny.
There have been repeated allegations that factions of the Northern Alliance, which controls much of the Kabul government, are deliberately attempting to destabilise the provinces of the south, where the strong tribes wield power, which could come to rival their own.
The fighting has further highlighted the fragility of the peace in Afghanistan, where warlords still wield enormous power both inside and outside the capital Kabul.
Reuters adds: At least 10 people were killed north of the besieged town of Gardez when US warplanes either struck a munitions dump or it exploded accidentally, villagers and officials said.
Residents of Alwazak village, around 50 km south of the capital, said a US bomb or missile had obliterated a residential compound late on Wednesday night, killing 10 members of the Khaderkhal family. They said the attack had caused an old munitions dump to explode, but local commanders loyal to the Afghan interim administration said the munitions dump probably belonged to the Taliban and may have exploded as they attempted to move it.
"Everything has been destroyed... what was our crime?" said Rahmedin, a resident in the area.
But local commander Gulaider said: "We found some ammunition on the spot. We don't know if that was the cause of the explosion or if it was a missile.”
The area has been racked by factional fighting as rival warlords tussle for power. Some area commanders have been accused of naming their enemies as members of the Taliban or al-Qaeda in order to get US forces to attack. Whatever caused the explosion in Alwazak, it was devastating. Two trucks were blown apart while the double-storey house was reduced to a pile of rubble. Ten freshly dug graves could be seen close to the destroyed house.
Rahmedin said locals were aware that some munitions had been stored in the area, but claimed they dated back over a decade to when the Mujahideen opposition was fighting against the Soviet occupation. He said the ammunition had been loaded onto the trucks to be given to the government.
Gulaider, however, said he suspected the munitions were part of a Taliban store and were being moved because they feared detection.