Militia disarmament reaches landmark in north

Mazar-I-Sharif, December 16, 2004 - For the first time, all of the militia fighters in an Afghan region have been disarmed as fighters loyal to two northern commanders gave up their guns under a U.N.-run drive to demilitarize the country.

The disarming of Afghanistan's numerous militia factions is seen as a crucial step as the country emerges from decades of conflict and its U.S.-backed government attempts to impose its authority over strongmen and their loyalists nationwide.

"The Afghanistan 'New Beginning Program' was able to declare for the first time the complete disarmament of all units in a region," a U.N. spokeswoman, Ariane Quentier, told reporters in Kabul, referring to the disarmament program.

But despite the disarming of 3,000 fighters loyal to ethnic Uzbek commander General Rashid Dostum and a similar number loyal to his bitter rival Mohammad Atta around the northern city of Mazar-i-Sharif, many more men remain under arms.

In all nearly 29,000 irregular fighters have been disarmed under the program, the United Nations says, but that figure is about 60 percent of the total number of men the United Nations hopes to see disarmed.

Forces under Dostum and Atta have battled intermittently since the Taliban were driven from power in late 2001, disrupting aid work across the north and raising doubts about the ability of the central government to impose order.

Dostum has a fearsome reputation and has been cited in several human rights reports, but polled 10 percent of the vote in an October presidential poll, winning solid support from ethnic Uzbeks.

Atta Mohammad, an ethnic Tajik, is a former mujahid, or holy warrior, who supported the late, legendary commander Ahmad Shah Masood, and is now governor of Balkh province, of which Mazar is capital.

Both commanders still have many men under arms in the north and there are many others throughout the country, despite the drive to disarm private militias, which began in October 2003 and is due to be completed by the middle of next year.

"There are tens of thousands of weapons in people's hands across the country and in the northern provinces," said Captain Tim Rawlinson of a British military-civilian reconstruction team in Mazar-i-Sharif, a city dominating the main route to Afghanistan's Central Asian neighbors.

"Millions of armed men still exist all over Afghanistan. This is a fact," senior Defense Ministry official General Manan told reporters in Mazar-i-Sharif.