Hundreds of Afghan fighters have exchanged weapons for cash, food and clothes over the last week under a U.N.-sponsored program that Defense Minister Mohammed Fahim hailed Monday as the key to improving the nation's security.
The $41-million initiative, mostly funded by Japan, aims to decommission 100,000 militiamen in a step toward reducing violence and creating a national army and police force.
Soldiers paraded on a field Monday outside Gardez in eastern Afghanistan, where surrendered weapons -- from rifles and rocket-propelled grenades to antiaircraft missiles and more than 20 tanks -- were on display.
The arms were handed in by 595 fighters, said U.N. spokesman Jim Ocitti. A similar ceremony in October saw nearly 1,000 soldiers turn in arms in the northern province of Kunduz.
The disarmament was meant to help restore stability two years after a U.S.-led coalition ousted the hard-line Taliban regime. But in a country racked by more than two decades of war -- including the Soviet invasion in 1979 and bitter factional fighting -- it could prove difficult.
After a French U.N. worker's slaying and a series of attacks, the United Nations suspended operations in southern and eastern Afghanistan on Monday.
U.N. associate spokeswoman Marie Okabe announced the suspension of operations, which dealt mainly with humanitarian relief, health care and refugees.
She said U.N. international staff from the provincial capital of Ghazni, where Bettina Goislard was killed Sunday, had been moved to Kabul. Afghan staff in the city were confined to their compounds, she said.
"We hope it's a temporary suspension, because as soon as we can get security clearance, we want to start resuming our assistance to the people," Okabe said.
The United Nations is continuing its operations in the northern half of Afghanistan.