KABUL, Afghanistan – After burying their dead, tribal fighters with fresh stocks of guns and ammunition prepared Saturday for a second assault on an eastern Afghan provincial capital, where fighting this past week killed at least 61 people.
Warlord Bacha Khan's last attempt to take Gardez ended with his fighters retreating to the hills after two days of bloody fighting last week. But they planned to attack the dilapidated town again on Sunday, unition, Khan's brother, Wazir Khan, told The Associated Press.
"They killed 11 of our people, we buried them, and tomorrow we will begin fighting again," Wazir Khan said by telephone.
Continued unrest here and elsewhere has led many Afghans to conclude they need a larger international peacekeeping force capable of operating nationwide and not simply in Kabul, the capital.
Terrified families huddled in basements or fled the town during the fighting on Wednesday and Thursday that had Khan's forces firing mortars from two hilltops. Fighters loyal to the Gardez town council, or shura, mounted their defense from an old hill fort in the town center.
Khan needs Gardez to assert his authority as governor of surrounding Paktia province. But Gardez tribal leaders, who claim Khan is a smuggler and tyrant, reject his governorship and have appealed to the interim Afghan government to select someone else.
A U.S. Marine spokesman, 1st Lt. James Jarvis, on Saturday defended the U.S. military decision not to intervene in the fighting. Townspeople had expressed disappointment that U.S. aircraft flying above and U.S. special forces troops operating from an old fort nearby had not come to their aid.
"We believe this is an Afghan situation and they are certainly free to govern themselves," said Jarvis, based at the U.S.-run airfield at the southern city of Kandahar. "It's not something any of the forces at Kandahar would be involved in."
Both sides in Gardez said Saturday that government mediators dispatched to broker a solution to the dispute had not contacted them.
Haji Saifullah, leader of the Gardez council that opposes Khan, said there was no fighting Saturday and that they did not want combat to resume.
"We do not plan any fighting," he said.
Without a national army, the Afghan government of Hamid Karzai has little power to force peace on squabbling regional warlords.
Karzai used a high-profile visit this week to Washington and London to push for a stronger international security force in Afghanistan, with a mandate to patrol outside the capital. But he was unable to win any pledge that the peacekeeping force would be significantly enlarged or its deployment expanded. Karzai returned to Kabul on Saturday.
In New York, Afghan Foreign Minister Abdullah endorsed a suggestion Friday that the force be increased from 5,000 to about 20,000 and spread to major regional centers, including Herat, Mazar-e-Sharif, Jalalabad and Kandahar.
"I think that will provide enough assurances ... about maintaining the stability throughout the country," Abdullah said.
Germany has committed up to 1,200 troops to the U.N.-sponsored force. But German Defense Minister Rudolf Scharping said in an interview released Saturday that Germany would "overstretch" its military if it took over leadership of the force from Britain. Karzai has urged Germany to step in when Britain hands over command of the force in March.
"At present, we would overstretch the army," the Welt am Sonntag newspaper quoted Scharping as saying. "Our forces are committed in the Balkans, in the fight against international terrorism and in Afghanistan."
In other developments:
– The fate of kidnapped Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl remained uncertain, but Pakistani authorities decided Saturday that an e-mail announcing that he had been killed Friday was a hoax after an exhaustive search of the cemeteries in Karachi, Pakistan, found no trace of him. The e-mail had claimed Pearl's body was dumped in a graveyard. Pearl, 38, was abducted Jan. 23 in Karachi while pursuing an interview with the founder of a militant Muslim sect
– In Kandahar, the military turned over to anti-Taliban fighters the remains of Mohammad Qasim, a man killed Dec. 5 in the worst incident of so-called "friendly fire" in the Afghan campaign – when a one-ton bomb dropped by a U.S. B-52 bomber killed three U.S. Green Berets and six Afghans. Twenty Americans and 18 Afghans were wounded.
Qasim had been buried at the now-abandoned Marine desert base at Camp Rhino. His body was exhumed Friday at the request of his family and brought to Kandahar.
– Authorities in the Middle Eastern country of Yemen have detained 115 foreign students for illegal residence and questioned them about links to radical Islamic groups, an Interior Ministry official said Saturday.
The students – from Britain, France, Egypt, Algeria, Indonesia, Pakistan, Sudan, Libya and Somalia – studied in Yemeni religious schools and were arrested over the past four months. None has been charged, the official said.
– A Chinese wildlife park offered Kabul's decimated zoo a lion to replace Marjan, the grenade-blinded big cat who died last month, China's official Xinhua News Agency reported Saturday. Donating the lion would be an expression of "the call for world peace," Xinhua quoted a park manager, Wang Wei, as saying.