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Ex-Leader Najibullah Waits to Learn if He Will Live or Die : Afghanistan: The U.N. seeks safe conduct abroad for the fallen president. But many of those now in power want the former dictator turned over for trial--and probable execution.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Ousted President Najibullah spends what may well be the last days of his life in a small room with a television and a radio. There are only a few chairs, enough for his trusted brother and the two generals who remain by his side. Every hour he sits, he waits to learn whether he will live or die.

Holed up in a loosely guarded U.N. compound in Kabul, cut off from the land he once ruled with an iron fist, Najibullah endures the bitter end of his six years as authoritarian president, an era that ended when a coalition of enemies and former friends plotted his overthrow and stopped him just a few hundred yards from the plane that was to carry him to safety.

As Afghanistan moves deeper into crisis, the intense behind-the-scenes debate unfolding among civilian and military leaders struggling to fill the power vacuum left by Najibullah’s fall illuminates key players and vested interests during the country’s critical hour.

The debate over the fate of Najib, as he is called here, is a critical one. At the moment, he is under authority of the United Nations, which is simultaneously trying to negotiate both Najibullah’s freedom and the peaceful transition of authority to an interim ruling council.

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The United Nations has officially asked the interim Kabul leadership to give the fallen strongman safe conduct out of the country, but a large faction of those now in positions of power replied Saturday with a demand of their own: Turn the former dictator over for trial--and probable execution.

Publicly, the remnants of Najibullah’s ruling Homeland Party now running the country with military backing insist that they are cooperating with U.N. attempts to devise a peace scenario. But with Najibullah inside his agency’s compound, the special U.N. envoy in charge of both brokering peace and safeguarding Najibullah has had little time to negotiate on any subject except the ousted dictator’s immediate safe departure.

“The biggest problem is Najibullah: He is not only an unnecessary and unfortunate distraction from the peace process, but he is increasingly being linked to it as well,” said one U.N. official Saturday, asking not to be identified by name.

“Some factions in the new leadership feel so strongly that the former dictator be tried and strung up for his crimes that they’ll torpedo the delicate and urgent peace process just for the sake of (a trial) and the sake of their own survival,” the official said.

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Afghan Foreign Minister Abdul Wakil, acting as spokesman for a coalition leadership whose members have been fiercely guarding their anonymity, made clear that the impasse over Najibullah’s future is, indeed, a major one.

Asked if the ruling party’s Central Committee decided Najibullah’s fate during an emergency meeting Saturday, Wakil said, “They decided it is not something to be decided by the Watan (Homeland) Party. The decision belongs to the people of Afghanistan. . . . We need to transfer him to a legal authority, and it is up to the Afghan people to decide . . . which legal authority.”

A senior source within the regime, speaking on condition of anonymity, outlined the various factions behind the precarious ruling coalition, noting: “There are three main differing groups as far as the fate of Najibullah is concerned.”

The hard-line faction, which includes Wakil and such other former inner-circle presidential confidants as party ideologue Suleiman Layeq, “believes that Najib has committed treachery, and he will have to be put on trial and punished for that,” the source said.

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Members of a second faction, which the source said includes a handful of party leaders and the Islamic rebel factions that are supporting the odd coalition of leaders, “are saying Najib will have to pay, but now is not the time to pressure the U.N. He should be allowed to go abroad and could be brought back by an elected government at a later date for trial. But first, he must pay back the millions he stole from the treasury.”

The source indicated, however, that a third group is the most powerful at the moment and is the one that may prevail if Kabul manages to avoid a new civil war that almost certainly would result in Najibullah’s prompt execution.

“The third category thinks that keeping Najib would be a thorny element that could destroy the peace process,” the source said. “It could provoke ethnic divisions and warfare between the Pushtun majority and Tajik minority now in charge, with the Pushtuns siding with Najib. And, for those reasons, no harm should come to him and he should be set free immediately.”

Although that moderate faction has kept largely out of sight in the three days since Najibullah was turned back at the airport and took refuge at the U.N. compound, it is the emerging power center and the actual manipulator of events in the frantic dealing to prevent the capital from slipping into anarchy.

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The moderate faction, which is dominated by members of Afghanistan’s ethnic Tajik community that predominates in Kabul, includes several followers of former President Babrak Karmal, who was driven from power when Moscow installed Najibullah in 1986 at the height of the nine-year Soviet military occupation of the country.

Karmal, a Tajik who has lived in bitterness under house arrest in Kabul since returning from exile in Moscow last year, quietly plotted Najibullah’s overthrow during the past several months. He drew into his circle of supporters a number of key Afghan army generals and party members and supervised contacts with Islamic rebel leader Ahmed Shah Masoud, an ethnic Tajik who is backing the coalition in Kabul with large numbers of his rebel force.

“This group is really emerging now as the most powerful, and they’re saying, ‘Let him go. He is useless to us,’ ” the source said.

” . . . But of course, there are other radical fringe factions out there, the friends and families of those whose sons and husbands were tortured and murdered during his rule. And they, of course, wouldn’t mind seeing his blood flow in the street. The question is, will the moderates win out before one of those fringe elements tears down the U.N. compound walls, carries out the president’s head and ends the matter once and for all?”

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