Hard-line factions in the Afghan military Tuesday staged a daring coup attempt against President Najibullah, bombing his palace, battling loyal soldiers in the streets and surrounding the Soviet Embassy with tanks, but the Afghan president announced hours later on state-run radio that the coup had failed.
As fighting continued in the streets of the Afghan capital of Kabul, Najibullah told the embattled nation Tuesday night that his Soviet-backed regime remains firmly in power and that loyal troops were scouring the city to capture renegade Defense Minister Shahnawaz Tanai, a battle-hardened army general whom the president identified as the coup leader.
In Moscow, the official news agency Tass confirmed that the coup had been crushed and that Tanai had fled into hiding. But Tass said that fighting continued around the Defense Ministry, and U.N. spokesman Francois Giuliani, in New York, said U.N. workers in Kabul, reached via satellite and radio channels, confirmed that "sporadic fighting" was continuing and that a curfew had been imposed.
The attempted coup, which left at least a dozen dead within the first hour alone, was the second plot in three months to overthrow Najibullah, who has stubbornly clung to power for a full year after his Soviet backers withdrew their 110,000 troops from war-ravaged Afghanistan.
Diplomats and other observers in Kabul, reached by telex and telephone before all lines from the capital went dead at 2 p.m. local time, said the military assault on Najibullah began just after noon. Three rockets landed near the presidential palace, and fighting between opposing army factions broke out at the Kabul airport.
At 1:45 p.m., Soviet observers in the capital said that an Afghan air force jet bombed Najibullah's sprawling and heavily fortified palace, situated in the heart of the capital.
"It is madness here, complete madness," Anil Penna, a reporter for Agence France-Presse, reported by telex from the Kabul Hotel just after the bombs fell on the palace across the street. "At least 10 killed. This hotel looks like it's falling apart."
Soon after, Soviet Foreign Ministry spokesman Gennady I. Gerasimov told reporters in Moscow that a coup attempt apparently was in progress against Najibullah, who was installed as Afghan president in 1986, two-thirds of the way through the decade of direct Soviet involvement in Afghanistan.
"There is shooting in the streets," Gerasimov volunteered to reporters. "The situation is confused."
Later, Tass reported that a shell had exploded on the roof of its office, in the Soviet Embassy compound. Residents were fleeing the city's downtown area, and many areas were without power, Tass reported.
In Washington, a White House official expressed caution over reports that the coup had been crushed. Air force units that supported the uprising may "still be holding out," the official said, noting that planes that bombed government strongholds appear to have landed safely somewhere within the country.
"We'll have to see what transpires at first light," the official said.
In reporting that Tanai was behind the coup, Afghanistan's state-run Radio Kabul quoted the president as asserting that Tanai had the backing of the moujahedeen, the U.S.-backed Islamic rebels who have been fighting a guerrilla war against Afghanistan's Communist regime for the past decade.
Afghan experts and senior diplomats, however, doubted that allegation.
Tanai, who has been virtually holed up in his fortified Defense Ministry headquarters in Kabul since the last failed coup attempt in December, is known to be intensely anti- moujahedeen.
In fact, most analysts in Kabul said Tanai and his supporters fought strenuously against Najibullah's many recent attempts to make peace with the Islamic rebels.
The rebels themselves have been plagued by deep internal divisions and their inability to wage conventional warfare in an unsuccessful attempt to overthrow Najibullah over the year since the withdrawal of Soviet troops in February, 1989.
Rather, diplomats and other analysts pointed to internal divisions within Kabul's ruling People's Democratic Party of Afghanistan to explain Tanai's motivation for the coup.
The party, which has been moving away from its strident socialist principles within the past year, is divided along tribal lines into two major factions known as the Khalqs and the Parchams.
Najibullah, the 43-year-old former head of Khad, the party's dreaded secret police, is a Parchami. Tanai is a Khalqi. Three months ago, Najibullah's government charged 124 of Tanai's supporters with plotting the December coup attempt, and since then Najibullah has tried to isolate the Khalqi forces within the government and the military.
Diplomats in Kabul added that the split within the regime and its armed forces is even broader than the differences between Afghanistan's important tribes.
Tanai, who last spoke to foreign journalists in October, 1989, is known to support a military solution to the bloody Afghan conflict at a time when both the Soviets and Washington are encouraging their opposing clients to seek a negotiated settlement.
Reflecting the new approach to ending a war that has left more than 1 million Afghans dead and 5 million more refugees in neighboring Pakistan and Iran, Secretary of State James A. Baker III for the first time last month told his Soviet counterpart, Eduard A. Shevardnadze, that Najibullah's ouster is no longer a condition for ending the conflict.
The United States is sending more than $200-million worth of arms and ammunition to the rebels in fiscal 1990, despite the Soviet pullout, and the Soviets are still sending an estimated $400 million worth of supplies to the regime's forces each month.
(The United States is also providing about $153.5 million in humanitarian aid, including $40 million for refugees in Pakistan and $13.5 million to the United Nations.)
Diplomats in Kabul had seen that U.S. concession as a breakthrough, but now they add that it may have also been a signal to Tanai and his Khalqi supporters to take power by force to prevent such a settlement.
Another indication that Tuesday's coup attempt was inspired neither by Moscow nor Washington came from Najibullah himself.
In reporting that the attempt had failed, Kabul Radio announced that the president had named as his new defense minister Mohammed Aslam Watanjar, a staunch, pro-Soviet socialist who is known to support Najibullah's recent peace overtures.
The overtures have included calls for party-based national elections and concessions for broad tribal and regional autonomy. The offers, along with hefty bribes of money and arms, have drawn thousands of rebel fighters over to the regime's side.
Trained as a tank officer in the Soviet Union in 1970, Watanjar was a key member of the three revolts that first overthrew Afghanistan's King Mohammed Zahir Shah in 1973, then ousted two Soviet-installed Afghan leaders in 1978 and 1979. He stood out as a vocal military supporter of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in December, 1979.
Watanjar was given important positions under both Khalqi- and Parchami-led regimes, which analysts said reflects his close ties to Moscow.
"He was the only Afghan the Russians trust," observed Anthony Arnold in his 1983 book "Afghanistan's Two-Party Communism." Arnold added that Watanjar's image among his own troops is tarnished by his "subservience to the Soviets, who may nevertheless see him as a possible future leader of the country."
A second White House official stressed the same point. Watanjar is "very much in the pocket of the Soviets--very subservient," this official said.
Tanai, by contrast, is a "nationalist radical" who is known to have had at least sporadic contacts with moujahedeen leaders, the official said. While U.S. analysts agree that there is no sign of moujahedeen involvement in the coup, the Khalq faction does share with the rebels a fierce nationalism that might allow some "coalition with the fundamentalists," the official said.
This official speculated that the coup attempt could increase Soviet willingness to come to terms with the United States on a plan to end the Afghan fighting. The Soviets "have been very hard-line" in negotiations, the official said, and "this will convey to them the message, again, that the government there is very unstable."
Administration officials, however, have predicted the downfall of Najibullah's regime before. At the time of the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan, there was a near consensus within the Bush Administration that the Kabul government would collapse in months, if not weeks. Events, including Tuesday's coup, have shown Najibullah to be far more resilient.
Times staff writers David Lauter and Robin Wright, in Washington, contributed to this report.
The Soviet-backed Afghan government has been locked in civil war with Western-backed moujahedeen rebels since it seized power in a 1978 military coup. President Najibullah has ruled the Southwest Asian nation of 15 million people since May, 1986. Efforts to topple him have accelerated since the Soviet troop pullout in February, 1989. But Tuesday's coup attempt appeared to have been sparked by tribal divisions within Najibullah's own party, rather than by the moujahedeen .