KABUL, Afghanistan – Two hundred soldiers in northern Afghanistan laid down their rifles, grenade launchers and anti-aircraft guns as part of the interim government's efforts to end factional fighting.
At the 120-year-old Baghjahanuma fort on Monday, warlord Atta Mohammed saluted his men before ordering them to place their Kalashnikovs in the dirt and step back. Other soldiers turned in other weapons, including mortars, to begin training by peacekeepers.
Discouraging rival warlords from turning their armies on each other is seen as the greatest challenge ahead as interim Prime Minister Hamid Karzai tries to consolidate power in the hands of a stable national government.
The disarmament followed an agreement between Atta Mohammed, the Tajik leader of the Jamiat-e-Islami faction in the area, and Majid Rozi, a senior lieutenant of Gen. Rashid Dostum's ethnic Uzbek faction. Clashes between fighters from both sides killed at least six people and injured dozens of others last week.
Also Monday, international peacekeepers began training a battalion of 600 men that will be the vanguard of a new national army to keep order, said Jonathan Turner, spokesman for the British-led peacekeeping force in Kabul.
Defense Minister Mohammed Fahim has said he eventually wants a standing army of no more than 200,000 men.
The training with AK-47 rifles is being conducted on a former military academy in Kabul that was heavily bombed by American and British jets. Turner said the area has firing ranges and similar facilities that can be used for training the recruits.
Instructors from five countries — Britain, Turkey, France, Italy and Germany — have six weeks to instill structure and discipline in the men, who have fought mostly with hit-and-run guerrilla tactics.
The 600 recruits were chosen by provincial governments and approved by the Defense Ministry. Because many regions are controlled by rival warlords, there is a danger some troops will be more loyal to their former bosses than to the central government.
But Turner said international peacekeepers will have some say in the selection.
"If there are some we decide should not be there we will have no hesitation in saying so," he said.
The U.N.-brokered interim government gave the defense, interior and foreign ministries to ethnic Tajiks, all of whom are from the Panjshir Valley of the Hindu Kush, the heartland of slain northern alliance leader Ahmed Shah Massood.
Although interim Afghan Prime Minister Hamid Karzai is a Pashtun tribal leader from Kandahar, the spiritual headquarters of the Taliban regime, many Pashtuns have complained of being marginalized since the Taliban's collapse.
An emphasis is on making sure the new army is more diverse, and Turner said it is possible that some men who once fought with the Taliban may end up in the new Afghan army. But he said the foot soldiers of the Taliban often were conscripted and did not necessarily have any more loyalty to the deposed regime than they did to past governments.
The United States is providing cots for the troops and may train the next batch of recruits, Turner said.
Turner warned of "teething problems" as international forces lay the foundation for a national army in a country long ruled by warlords and their private militias.
The disarmament at the Baghjahanuma fort was a promising sign, but the agreement was limited to security in one town, Khulm. A senior U.N. official cautioned that the ceremony was not an indication that tensions had eased between ethnic groups in the north.
"There are many more guns out there," Farhana Faruqi, the United Nations' regional coordinator in northern Afghanistan told The Associated Press. "But this is very encouraging. At least the commander of one faction is publicly committing himself to disarmament.
"It gives confidence to the local people in the peace process," she said.
In other developments:
—President Bush said Monday that Afghanistan "failed demonstrably" in 2001 to cooperate in anti-narcotics efforts but that it nonetheless is entitled to receive U.S. assistance because of vital American interests.
—The government of Helmand province, the biggest opium-growing region in the world, said it would allow this year's poppy crop to bloom and be harvested because Afghanistan's new regime is too weak to stop it. The crops — which are the raw material for heroin — were banned under the Taliban, but farmers quickly replanted during the U.S.-led war that ousted the regime.
—Karzai, on a three-day visit to Iran, praised Afghanistan's western neighbor for standing by his country in its struggles against Soviet occupation and terrorists. He also thanked Iran for taking in 2 million Afghan refugees.
—Afghan Foreign Ministry spokesman Omar Samad said former Afghan Prime Minister Gulbuddin Hekmatyar was a "war criminal" and would be treated accordingly if he returns to Afghanistan from Iran, where he lives in exile.