U.S., Afghan officials hope insurgent feud signals split

KABUL, Afghanistan — Simmering divisions between rival Islamist groups erupted into open warfare in northern Afghanistan this weekend as Taliban forces battled fighters from one of their main allies, Afghan officials said Sunday.

With their leader pursuing tentative peace talks with the Afghan government, more than 100 Hezb-i-Islami militants fighting the Taliban put down their weapons and surrendered to Afghan government forces, said officials in Baghlan province, where the battles broke out.

While the Taliban sought to downplay the fighting and a Hezb-i-Islami spokesman said that his group and the Taliban must fight "the same occupiers," Afghan government and American military officials expressed hope that the battles might signal a split in the insurgency.

"Hezb-i-Islami are willing to talk, and they are much closer than the Taliban," said Malway Abdul Haq Mazhari, a lawmaker from Baghlan province.

Hezb-i-Islami is led by Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, a veteran militant who received American support when he fought the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan in the 1980s, then allied himself with the Taliban, and is now exploring a truce with the Afghan government.

Although Hekmatyar leads the smallest of the three insurgent groups in Afghanistan, his decision to break with the Taliban could provide a significant boost for U.S.-led forces working to undermine Islamist hardliners and weaken their position in any peace talks with Afghan President Hamid Karzai.

"This could be a significant split, but we just don't know yet," said one NATO official in Kabul, who agreed to speak only on the condition of anonymity.

The fighting broke out Saturday after the Taliban and Hekmatyar's forces failed to resolve a dispute over which group could collect taxes in several villages, said Mohammed Kabir Andarabi, Baghlan's police chief.

Aided by reinforcements from neighboring Kunduz province, Taliban fighters waged intense battles with Hekmatyar's forces, Andarabi said.

After two days of fighting, more than 100 Hezb-i-Islami fighters ceded control of five villages to Afghan government forces, Baghlan police said.

"This area once controlled by Hezb-i-Islami is now in government control," said Baghlan police spokesman Jawet Basharat.

Police officials said fighting continued Sunday night. There were conflicting estimates of the dead and wounded. Hezb-i-Islami spokesman Ali Wali said early Sunday that five fighters had been killed, while Andarabi said more than 60 insurgents had died in the battles.

Wali sought to downplay the battles as an isolated dispute that got out of hand. "We told the Taliban that we have the same enemy to fight," Wali said. "We have to fight against the same occupiers."

The battle in northeastern Afghanistan came as President Hamid Karzai paid his first visit to Marjah, the former Taliban town in southern Afghanistan where U.S. Marines have led a major offensive.

In a meeting with more than 300 men from Marjah, Karzai vowed to prevent the Taliban from returning, but the men expressed doubts about the Afghan president's commitment.


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