Gunmen Attack Afghan Security Chief

The governor of an eastern Afghan province demanded U.S. Special Forces hand over several rival Afghan allies who allegedly opened fire Sunday on the region's security chief, killing a bodyguard and wounding two others before reportedly fleeing into an American compound.

Afghan authorities said the assailants were believed to have been allies of the United States and took refuge in the Americans' fortified airport compound. There was no confirmation from U.S. forces.

The security chief of Khost province, Sur Gul, escaped injury in the attack, the latest in a series of violent incidents in the area involving rival Afghan groups, according to Hazratuddin, intelligence chief of Khost.

Hazratuddin, who like many Afghans uses only one name, said the assailants opened fire on Gul because the security chief had tried to disarm them a day earlier in the Khost public market.

"We will talk again tomorrow [Monday] with the Americans and I am sure they will hand them over," Khost Gov. Mohammed Ibrahim said by telephone. "I was busy today with the funeral, but I don't think they will refuse."

Khost, located in eastern Afghanistan near the Pakistani border, is a volatile city, bristling with men with guns and carved into areas controlled by warlords. Most of the city is under the control of U.S.-backed warlord Bacha Khan Zardran, but within Zardran's group there are rival factions.

Many Afghans in Khost blame the rising tension here on the United States for having recruited warlords as allies in the fight against the Taliban and Al Qaeda. The warlords are paid for their services — something that has triggered clashes among Afghan groups eager to win support and patronage from the Americans.

Hazratuddin said the gunmen who fired at Gul were loyal to the nephew of Zardran, whose men are among those being trained by the U.S. special forces. Gul also works with the U.S. special forces.

Although use of warlords has increased tensions among Afghan groups, U.S. officials believe it has been instrumental in delivering repeated blows to Al Qaeda during the five-month military conflict.

Zardran, for example, led troops in the recently concluded Operation Anaconda, which targeted Al Qaeda and Taliban holdouts in Paktia province which borders Khost.

Nevertheless, U.S. Vice President Dick Cheney said there were still pockets of Al Qaeda scattered around Afghanistan.

"There are, I'm sure, going to be efforts by them to try to organize themselves enough so that they can launch an attack at least on our forces in Afghanistan," Cheney said. "We see intelligence to that effect."

In Tampa, Florida, a spokesman for the U.S. Central Command, Navy Cmdr. Frank Merriman, said Al Qaeda has suffered a series of defeats but is far from having been wiped out. Pockets of Al Qaeda and Taliban fighters are believed to be hiding in Afghanistan and Pakistan, waiting for the right moment to strike.

"They are a worldwide organization," Merriman said. "There very well may be other terrorist acts in the planning process, and our goal is to try to disturb and eliminate as many of those as we can."

At Bagram air base outside Kabul, U.S. officials said Afghan allies were still recovering weapons abandoned by Al Qaeda during Operation Anaconda.

"The threat level remains high here in Afghanistan," said Maj. Bryan Hilferty, U.S. military spokesman. "We continue to redeploy troops, prepare for future combat operations, improve our security and conduct surveillance and reconnaissance missions throughout Afghanistan."

In other developments:

— The United States has moved a small number of Air Force A-10 Thunderbolt ground-attack planes to the Bagram air base. It was the first time fixed-wing aircraft have been stationed inside Afghanistan, Hilferty said. The planes, used in combat earlier this month, are designed to attack armored vehicles and provide close air support for ground missions. The aircraft will be located at the base, Hilferty said. That should shorten the time it takes for them to reach their targets.

— Britain will extend its leadership of the international peacekeeping force in Kabul beyond next month when it had planned to hand off its responsibilities, Foreign Secretary Jack Straw told the British Broadcasting Corp.

Britain had said it would lead the 18-nation peacekeeping force, now 4,500 troops strong, for three months ending in March. But Straw said Turkey, which had been due to take over from Britain, was not prepared to do so yet.

— More German experts will arrive next month in Kabul to begin training a new Afghan police force, the government said Sunday. Five German police officers already in Kabul will be joined by seven more on April 2.

— Afghanistan's minority Shiite Muslim community celebrated its holiest holiday Sunday for the first time since the Taliban's ouster — free to openly practice their ritual of self-flagellation.

The Feast of Ashura commemorates the death in 680 A.D. of Imam Hussein, a grandson of the Prophet Muhammad. The killing led to the split in Islam between Shiites and Sunni Muslims.

The Taliban, Sunni Muslims like most of the country, banned public processions by Shiites during Ashura.