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Afghan aviation minister assassinated

Slaying sparks factional fighting in western city

KABUL, Afghanistan -- Soldiers loyal to a local commander shot and killed Afghanistan's aviation minister yesterday in the western city of Herat, setting off factional fighting with guns and tanks in which as many as 100 people died, the commander said.

In Kabul, Defense Minister Mohammed Fahim demanded an immediate cease-fire, and ordered newly US-trained Afghan National Army soldiers deployed from the capital to try to calm the city.

The orders followed an emergency session of security chiefs of President Hamid Karzai's shaky US-allied government, rocked by yesterday's killing of Mirwais Sadiq. He was the third top Karzai official and second aviation minister to die violently in office.

Presidential spokesman Khaleeq Ahmed said only that Sadiq -- son of Herat's powerful governor, Ismail Khan -- had been shot in his car in unclear circumstances.

However, a top Herat military commander, Zaher Naib Zada, said by telephone last night that his forces killed Sadiq in a confrontation after the minister went to Zada's home to fire him.

Afterward, Zada's forces and soldiers loyal to Sadiq opened battle with machine guns, tanks, and rockets for control of his division's military barracks.

The commander said between 50 and 100 soldiers were killed in the first hours of the ongoing battle, and that by early today, he was holding out with 700 men at the barracks against what he said were 3,000 fighters loyal to Sadiq.

"We are fighting at close range, with AK-47s and grenades," the militia commander said.

Aid workers, also reached by telephone, reported gunfire and heavy explosions and said they had been ordered to stay indoors. UN workers scrambled into a bunker at their headquarters.

A police officer, Fahim, reached by telephone at the main police station, gave a different account from Zada's, saying Sadiq had gone to the residence to ask Zada about the killing of three civilians by his forces two days earlier.

Higher officials in Khan's provincial government could not be reached for comment.

Karzai's defense and interior ministers were preparing to travel to Herat to try to determine the circumstances of the killing, and the battles that followed, said the spokesman, Ahmed.

US forces at an American base in the city manned defensive positions within their post, the military spokesman, Lieutenant Colonel Bryan Hilferty, said in Kabul.

Hilferty called the fighting an "internal" matter and said he knew of no American plans to intervene. The post holds fewer than 100 Americans, he said.

Karzai, who escaped a 2002 attempt on his life, said in a brief statement from Kabul that he was "deeply shocked" by the killing and offered condolences to the Herat governor. Sadiq was viewed as his father's representative in Karzai's government.

Ismail Khan is a former anti-Soviet commander who runs a large private army and has had firm control over Herat since the fall of the Taliban in late 2001. But there have been persistent tensions -- and occasional factional fighting -- between his men and those loyal to rival warlords.

State television reported that Khan had escaped a separate attack yesterday without injury. Ahmed and other officials said there had been no attack on Khan, however.

Karzai's first civil aviation minister, Abdul Rahman, was assassinated Feb. 14, 2002, at Kabul's airport, in circumstances that remain unclear. Gunmen shot and killed Vice President Abdul Qadir in the capital on July 6, 2002.

Both of those killings remain unsolved.

Karzai has been constantly shadowed by Afghan and American bodyguards armed with automatic weapons since a September 2002 assassination attempt in the southern city of Kandahar. Three people, including the gunman, died in that attack. Karzai's government includes an uneasy alliance of former warlords who had joined forces to help the United States rout the former Taliban government. His government still is trying to assert control nationwide, including over Herat and its customs revenue as a major port of entry on the Iranian border.

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