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Key Tribal Leader in Battle With Taliban Soldiers

TIMES STAFF WRITER

An Afghan tribal leader who hoped to rally anti-Taliban forces in southern Afghanistan was in a serious fight with Taliban soldiers early today after surviving a gun battle Thursday, according to family members and associates in Quetta.

The leader, Hamid Karzai, had gone to Afghanistan to meet with tribal elders and to organize resistance to the Taliban in the southern part of the country, which is dominated by the Pushtun ethnic group, the same group to which many Taliban belong. Karzai is also Pushtun.

The outcome of the fight is critical to the formation of a new order in Afghanistan. If Karzai, who is well regarded by the United States, is captured by the Taliban and suffers the same fate as Abdul Haq, the anti-Taliban warlord who was killed last week, then prospects will dim further for fomenting a rebellion against the Taliban.

However, if he holds his ground and other tribal leaders rally to his cause, it could signal the beginning of a change in the political and military climate in the country.

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“We cannot afford to lose another leader as we did Abdul Haq,” said Khalid, an Afghan associate of another tribal leader, Gul Agha Shirzai, who is in exile in Pakistan and is also planning to enter Afghanistan to rally Taliban resistance.

Despite reports by some local news organizations that Karzai had been captured, his family members and associates, as well as the BBC, said they had reached him by satellite phone and that he was safe.

His relatives said they had talked to him early today, and a man at his home in Quetta described him as “in good health.”

Karzai is a former deputy foreign minister of Afghanistan and, like several Quetta-based Afghan warlords in exile, is a supporter of the exiled king, Mohammad Zaher Shah.

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According to Khalid, who spoke with Karzai on Thursday night, there had been a battle with the Taliban and four of Karzai’s supporters were killed. He said that Karzai’s troops, whose numbers are unknown, claimed that they had captured 12 Taliban soldiers, but that could not be substantiated. The fighting reportedly began in the village of Darawart.

“Four of his companions have died, but the rest have climbed to the mountain,” Khalid said.

A relative in Quetta, who asked that his name not be used because of the situation, said Karzai had gone to Afghanistan about two weeks ago to meet with tribal elders in Oruzgan province, a mountainous area north of Kandahar.

He went into the country alone but since arriving had been with his tribe and meeting with elders from other tribes to build a coalition to defeat the Taliban.

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Unlike Haq, who was killed within a couple of days of entering Afghanistan, Karzai had been in the country long enough to contact his old associates and begin to rally support, the relatives said.

The United States has been hoping to see some rebellion in the southern part of Afghanistan, but it has been a Taliban stronghold.

If Karzai’s rebellion, which is still forming, were to succeed, it would be a boon to the Bush administration, which is trying to avoid seeming too close to the Northern Alliance forces fighting the Taliban in the north of the country. The Northern Alliance soldiers are ethnic Tajiks, and the U.S. has wanted to avoid seeming to side with any one faction. Instead, it has said it is pushing for a broad government that would include all groups.

As the fight continued Thursday, there were reports that four U.S. helicopters swooped in to try to save Karzai but were unable to do so, according to the Pakistan-based Afghan Islamic Press, which quoted the Afghan ambassador to Pakistan, Abdul Salam Zaeef.

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The AIP also said that a Taliban source told it 25 Karzai followers were arrested, but that could not be confirmed.


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