MAZAR-E-SHARIF, Afghanistan – Two rival warlords (search) signed a cease-fire Thursday after fierce fighting left scores dead in northern Afghanistan, both sides said.
It was not clear if the deal would hold, although both sides reported their troops began withdrawing tanks and other weapons from the battlefield. Fighting raged up until the agreement was reached, and tensions remained high, commanders said. Several past truces have quickly dissolved.
The cease-fire came after 24 hours of fighting that left "high numbers of casualties," according to the United Nations (search). One warring side said the death toll was more than 60, while the other reported lower numbers.
One of the warlords, Atta Mohammed, told The Associated Press that the cease-fire took effect immediately and that all tanks and other weapons would be moved back 18 miles from the front line for the next two days before returning to their bases.
"I am sure this cease-fire will hold," he said.
Gen. Majid Rozi, a senior commander for northern Uzbek warlord Abdul Rashid Dostum, confirmed the details of the truce and said the weapons had already started moving away from the battlefield.
The agreement was reached in talks with Afghan Interior Minister Ali Ahmad Jalali, who traveled to Mazar-e-Sharif (search) on Thursday from the capital, Kabul.
Both sides claim allegiance to President Hamid Karzai (search) and are members of the Northern Alliance, which helped oust the hardline Taliban regime in late 2001.
It was not immediately clear what sparked the clashes. A government spokesman in Kabul said it was most likely due to disputes over land or access to water, the cause of repeated fighting in the past.
Earlier Thursday, hundreds of rival militiamen with tanks and artillery fought across a narrow front line, about 12 miles west of Mazar-e-Sharif, the main city in northern Afghanistan.
Atta said some of his soldiers and a few civilians were killed, but he was not sure how many.
A spokesman for the U.N. mission in Afghanistan, Manoel de Almeida e Silva, said the conflict "was very intense with both sides using tanks as well as mortars."
Almeida e Silva said fighting also occurred in the town of Maimana, about 120 miles southwest of Mazar-e-Sharif, with an unknown number of casualties.
U.S. military spokesman Maj. Richard Sater said from Bagram Air Base, the military headquarters north of Kabul, that U.S. officials were closely monitoring the fighting.
"These battles are the worst we've seen in months," Foreign Ministry spokesman Omar Samad said.
Both warring sides are nominally loyal to Karzai's central government, although disputes at a village level often escalate into larger battles, he said.
The fighting came as the Afghan government and the United Nations signed a deal paving the way to deploy teams of U.N. and Afghan personnel in cities across Afghanistan to start a much-delayed program to disarm militiamen loyal to warlords.
Disarming the tens of thousands of militiamen is essential if the Afghan government is to be able to build and deploy a national army to maintain security. It is also an important step if a NATO-led peacekeeping mission is to expand to regions outside Kabul.
Convincing the warlords, many of whom are also provincial governors, to agree to surrender their weapons will be a major challenge. Some of them are allegedly involved in drug trafficking and other crimes and may see little benefit in giving up the arms that keep them in power.
The first disarmament team is expected in the northern city of Kunduz on Oct. 25. Teams are then scheduled to head for the cities of Gardez, Mazar-e-Sharif and Kabul later this year.
Attempts last year to disarm the two militia groups loyal to Atta and Dostum largely failed.
In eastern Afghanistan, meanwhile, suspected Taliban rebels ambushed a U.S. special forces convoy Wednesday, and both sides exchanged gunfire, damaging several U.S. vehicles but causing no American injuries, the U.S. military said.
The U.S. forces drove aggressively through the ambush on a road linking the cities of Khost and Gardez, and the insurgents fled, said Maj. Richard Sater. It was not clear if any rebels were hurt, he said.
Also Wednesday, rebels shot at a U.S. patrol near a U.S.-led coalition base in Paktika province, and the Americans fired back with mortars. No coalition troops were wounded and it was unclear if any of the insurgents were injured, Sater said.
Taliban and al-Qaida rebels have been launching increasingly bold assaults recently, raiding police stations, killing aid workers and confronting U.S. troops.