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Taliban, another militant group fighting one another

| Monday, March 8, 2010

KABUL — Fierce weekend fighting in the north of Afghanistan between Taliban forces and another militant Islamist group has left an estimated 50 people dead, and the clashes were continuing late last night, according to reports from the area.

Local news reports quoted government and security officials from Baghlan province saying fighting erupted Saturday between the Taliban and fighters of the Hezb-e-Islami, a guerrilla faction under the command of longtime militia leader Gulbuddin Hekmatyar.

The Afghan government has limited reach in the area where the clashes are occurring, and details about the reason behind the fighting remained sketchy. It was unclear whether this was an isolated clash or represented a break in the ranks of the allied militia groups that have been posing a challenge to the government of President Hamid Karzai.

News agency reports and Afghan media said the two sides were firing heavy weapons, including rocket-propelled grenades. Government officials gave the death toll at about 50 on both sides, but different officials gave wildly different breakdowns of the casualties.

The Associated Press quoted a provincial police chief as saying more than 100 Hezb-e-Islami fighters pledged to switch sides and join government troops.

The Afghan Web site , run by the Tolo television station, called the clashes the deadliest in years between the militia groups, which had been in a strategic alliance opposed to Karzai's Western-backed government.

Both groups had been demanding a withdrawal of American and other foreign forces from Afghanistan as a prelude to any reconciliation talks with the Karzai government. But Hekmatyar, with a history of switching sides, was considered more susceptible to peace overtures.

After battling invading Soviet forces, Hekmatyar alternately allied himself with and fought against almost every major faction in Afghanistan; he spent the years of Taliban control living in exile in Iran while his militia splintered. After U.S. troops ousted the Taliban in 2001, Hekmatyar called for a "jihad" against foreign forces and formed a new alliance with Taliban insurgents.

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