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(New York) - Human Rights Watch warned today that factional fighting in Afghanistan has risen to dangerous levels in recent weeks, threatening the process for the selection of Afghanistan's next government. Similar strife during the early 1990s-by many of the same parties that are now in power locally-involved serious and widespread violations of the laws of war and paved the way for the rise of the Taliban.

If the international community doesn't take more effective steps immediately to establish security throughout Afghanistan, the country is likely to return to the rampant human rights abuses and warlordism that characterized the last decade," said Kenneth Roth, Executive Director of Human Rights Watch. "The U.N. Security Council and the United States-led coalition forces must live up to their commitment to ensure peace and stability throughout Afghanistan."

Heavy fighting broke out on April 29 near the northern city of Mazar-i Sharif, in the districts of Sar-e Pul and Sholgara. The fighting involved the two major parties in the region: Junbish-i Milli, the mainly ethnic Uzbek forces of Deputy Defense Minister Abdul Rashid Dostum, and Jamiat-e Islami, the mainly Tajik forces commanded in the north by Atta Mohammad, an ally of Defense Minister Mohammad Qasim Fahim. The conflict led to at least twenty deaths before the U.N. negotiated a cease-fire on May 2.

Human Rights Watch said violence could worsen as factions try to consolidate their control over territory and influence the loya jirga (grand national council) process now underway. Afghan civilians began holding district-level meetings throughout the country on April 15 to choose representatives to the assembly, which will meet in Kabul in June to select the country's next government.

The past week saw a massive buildup of troops and military hardware in Mazar-i Sharif by Junbish and Jamiat. As of May 5, up to 3000 troops from each faction were estimated to be in the city, with large numbers having entered on the pretext of taking part in National Day celebrations on April 28. Others continued to enter Mazar-i Sharif over the course of the last week, often in civilian dress and traveling on public buses. They were given arms when they reported to their factions' bases inside the city. International observers estimated that there are about ninety to one hundred armored vehicles in the city.

A second agreement brokered on Sunday by U.N. negotiators committed both factions to move their armored personnel carriers and artillery to their respective bases west and east of the city within twenty-four hours, and to dismantle unauthorized posts and bases. Observers told Human Rights Watch that the withdrawal of troops and military hardware was underway today, but that compliance would be difficult to monitor because many of the troops were housed in small groups in private homes. Yesterday's agreement also provides for an investigation by a U.N. commission into the fighting last week in Sholgara and Sar-e Pul, and authorizes such a commission to disarm both factions there.

Human Rights Watch strongly welcomed the agreement, but noted that the U.N. had limited capacity to monitor and enforce it.

"The problems of warlordism and factional fighting are too widespread to be resolved by ad hoc interventions," said Roth. "Security arrangements are needed to counter the power of armed factions and create space for a civilian leadership to emerge."

Human Rights Watch has also learned of serious new outbreaks of factional fighting in other parts of the country.

·Western Afghanistan: Human Rights Watch received reports on April 8 of fighting between Abdul Karim Barohi, the governor of Nimroz province, and rival commanders in areas adjacent to the Iranian border. Fighting was also reported in Saranj. In mid-April, fighting in the latter area forced the U.N. to temporarily halt repatriation of Afghan refugees from Iran.

·Southeastern Afghanistan: On April 27, heavy fighting broke out around Gardez for the second time this year between the Paktia provincial governor named by Chairman Hamid Karzai and an ousted warlord, Padshah Khan Zadran. At least twenty-five civilians were reported killed.

·Central Afghanistan: Human Rights Watch received reports on April 30 of fighting between three rival warlords in Wardak province, especially in Chak, Sayedabad, and Dai Mirdad districts.

Because the U.S.-led coalition forces have cooperated closely with many of the warlords and militias that now wield power in Afghanistan, Human Rights Watch said the coalition had a special obligation to promote disarmament and establish effective security arrangements for areas under their control. A 4,500- member international security assistance force (ISAF) has helped ensure security in Kabul, but the U.S. has not supported its expansion to other areas, and ISAF member countries are reluctant to contribute additional troops without explicit U.S. support.

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