The military and political leaders who overthrew Afghanistan's strongman Najibullah scrambled Friday to forge new alliances, fend off a brewing blood bath of reprisals and salvage what is left of an ambitious U.N. plan for peace in the ravaged country.
There appeared to be a deadlock over the fate of the fallen dictator, who was holed up in a neutral compound in the capital.
The military leaders who forced Najibullah's resignation and later stopped him from fleeing the country Thursday fed the fear in this city, issuing warnings that fundamentalist Muslim rebel factions continued to close in on Kabul to prevent an emerging alliance between the ruling regime and more moderate rebel leaders. Residents could hear heavy outgoing artillery fire throughout the day and night.
But there was no hard evidence of an imminent attack by the moujahedeen guerrillas. Foreign military analysts in Kabul counted just five incoming rockets in the past 24 hours, and most disputed the military warning, saying it appeared to be a strategy to win popular support in the capital.
On the surface, the mood in Kabul's rocket-pocked streets and neglected parks seemed incongruously serene on Friday, the Muslim Sabbath.
Youngsters played badminton, soccer and volleyball. The movie theaters were open and filled to capacity. Legless men calmly worked their way in and out of the mosques on rickety crutches that have become a staple of life in this country, where 3 million people have been disabled by war. There were funerals and weddings and, as always, long and angry bread lines at the bakeries.
Among Afghans, there was remarkably little public display over the fall of their dictator--no celebrations, no sorrow. Najibullah, a former chief of the feared secret police, had grown almost universally unpopular here, failing as he did to bring peace in his six years in power.
Najibullah's term covered the latter half of Afghanistan's bloody 13-year civil war, touched off by the invasion of the Soviet army in 1979. Throughout the 1980s, the country was a microcosm of the superpower struggle, with the United States arming the anti-Soviet Muslim guerrillas, based in Pakistan, and the Soviets propping up the Kabul regime. The Red Army finally ended its occupation in early 1989, but it was not until the end of last year that Moscow and Washington stopped arming the two sides. The fighting, however, has continued.
In recent weeks, the United Nations has labored to bring peace, and last week Secretary General Boutros Boutros-Ghali announced an agreement among all the warring factions to set up an interim government that would pave the way for elections. But this week, the guerrillas stepped up their campaign, and Najibullah was toppled by four of his own generals, apparently acting in concert with one or more of the moderate rebel factions.
"People feel that at least a change has begun, and they see some opportunities in the change," said one Asian diplomat here. "They have deep apprehensions, though, that there might be turmoil, there might be chaos, there might be a blood bath, even though there is no evidence of it yet.
"But the military is very confident, largely because in reality nothing has changed. The same infrastructure is in place. The power actually lies in the hands of the military, but they don't want to project that at the moment. They want to cast the leadership as moderate, open and willing to compromise."
In an effort to forge a broad-based interim coalition that could steer the nation away from anarchy, the military commanders and the embattled remnants of Najibullah's ruling party leadership began a flurry of internal diplomacy Friday.
Abdul Wakil, the foreign minister who turned on Najibullah and supported the generals who ousted him, flew by military helicopter to the town of Charikar, north of Kabul, where he met with legendary rebel leader Ahmed Shah Masoud, head of the Jamiat-i-Islami party. Top ruling party sources in Kabul described Masoud as supporting the four-man ruling council set up by the rebel generals.
Wakil's deputies described the meeting as a move to consolidate the rule of an emerging coalition in Kabul. But longtime Kabul analysts said the trip also showed how Najibullah's former aides are frantically negotiating their own survival. Career Communists such as Wakil--who, like Najibullah, cheered the Soviet invasion force of 1979--are still among the most hated adversaries of the moujahedeen.
On the war front north and south of Kabul, regular army commanders mounted assaults Friday on scattered groups of fundamentalist rebels who oppose the coalition attempts. Meanwhile, other army officials were reported negotiating cease-fire deals with the more amenable fundamentalist commanders in what one diplomat called "the Afghans' attempt to find an Afghan solution" to the war.
The scene at Kabul's international airport was illustrative. Under a protective umbrella that included national guardsmen and army and air force troops, once-rebellious tribal militiamen and rebel followers of commander Masoud were flown in throughout the day.
Standing on a tranquil Tarmac that has been a frequent target of rebel rockets during the past decade, the second in command of the Afghan air force explained that the airport, like a strategic air force base just north of Kabul, is being run smoothly by a "joint military and civilian council of regular army and rebel militia."
Gen. Abdul Jamil, a veteran combat pilot and the air force chief of staff who helped engineer Najibullah's overthrow, told The Times that, for the moment, the generals who moved against Najibullah are supporting the hastily installed civilian government, consisting of the nation's four serving vice presidents.
Jamil, who said he was at the airport when Najibullah attempted to flee the capital at about 2 a.m. Thursday, provided the first details of the incident. He said the 44-year-old leader arrived at the VIP lounge in a U.N. car with an escort vehicle carrying his brother, who was his chief of security, and a trusted lieutenant general.
Najibullah planned to fly out aboard a civilian aircraft of the state-run national airline, Afghan Ariana, Jamil said, but he was turned back by a senior national guard officer and later took refuge in the office of U.N. official Benon Sevan, a special envoy of Boutros-Ghali. U.N. officials in New York have consistently denied this last detail.
Afghan diplomats abroad tried to minimize the changes in their country. "There was no coup in Afghanistan," Mohammed Daoud Razmyar, the Afghan ambassador to Russia, told a news conference in Moscow on Friday.
"Nobody removed Najibullah from power; he did it himself by attempting to leave the country secretly," the ambassador said.
He added that there is no threat to foreigners in the capital. According to the Russian Information Agency, however, the Russian government--which has about 300 nationals in Kabul--was making contingency evacuation plans.
In Washington, the Bush Administration renewed its call on both sides to avoid bloodshed and violence. Officials admitted, however, that the United States has very little leverage.
Robert Neumann, director of Middle East Studies at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said Washington lost most of its influence on the guerrillas by funneling aid through Pakistan and, in effect, permitting the Pakistani authorities to select the recipients.
"The fact is that we acquiesced, to say the least, in the Pakistani domination of the way in which the resistance was treated--that is, the favoring of the extreme factions, which are the ones now that may and probably will . . . upset the apple cart," Neumann, who served as U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan 20 years ago, said in an interview with CNN.
Neumann said there is little hope of averting chaos as the Afghan war plays itself out.
" Orderly and Afghan are two contradictory concepts," he said. "It will be messy. The question is, how messy?"
Times staff writer Norman Kempster in Washington contributed to this article.