(AP) Rival militias clashed in western Afghanistan Saturday, reportedly killing 21 people and ramping up concern about security as the country prepares for landmark elections. The fighting that broke out in at least three parts of Herat province pitched forces loyal to provincial Gov. Ismail Khan, one of the country’s most powerful warlords, against rivals to the north, east and south.
Afghanistan’s National Security Council was to meet later Saturday to decide whether to send government troops to the area, a Defense Ministry spokesman said.
The U.S. military also expressed concern but showed no sign that it would intervene.
One of the dissident commander fighting Khan said his forces captured a Soviet-built airbase held by a militia loyal to Khan during overnight fighting.
The commander, Amanullah, said his fighters killed 14 of Khan’s men and captured another 20. Seven of his own men also died, said Amanullah, an ethnic Pashtun commander from Shindand, about 370 miles west of the capital, Kabul. Amanullah goes by one name.
One of Amanullah’s commanders, Abdul Karim, said three more of his fighters were wounded, and an Associated Press Television News reporter said three injured soldiers were brought to a hospital in Herat city.
Abdul Wahed Tawakali, a spokesman for Khan, said there was “hand-to-hand fighting” near the base but denied it had fallen. He had no information on casualties.
While thousands of international troops are keeping the peace in Kabul, security in the outlying regions, particularly the south and east, remains precarious and is largely left to militia forces loyal to local commanders.
In Kabul, Defense Ministry spokesman Mohammed Zahir Azimi said Amanullah’s forces were operating illegally.
Asked if government troops would be dispatched in response, he said: “We are waiting for the decision to be made later today by the National Security Council.”
Forces of other dissident commanders clashed with Khan’s fighters near Karukh to the north of Herat city and in Chishti Sharif, a valley in the Hindu Kush mountains, said Naseer Ahmad Halawi, Herat’s intelligence chief.
The clashes were another security headache for American-backed interim leader Hamid Karzai and foreign forces here as they prepare for Oct. 9 presidential elections.
Karzai recently sent troops from the new U.S.-trained national army to neighboring Ghor province in an attempt to calm violent feuding between warlords.
U.S. military spokesman Maj. Scott Nelson said it was “very concerned” about tension in the region.
He said the military was ready to support the government but noted that only a small team of American forces was in Herat, busy mainly with reconstruction projects.
Afghan National Army troops were sent to Herat city in March after in-fighting there killed several people, including one of Khan’s sons, who was a minister in Karzai’s government.
The United Nations is concerned that the failure to disarm militias who control much of the country leaves the election vulnerable to intimidation.
Separately, the U.S. military claimed Saturday that the Taliban’s leadership appears to be “falling apart” as more and more Afghans turn against the rebels.
Two factions have emerged within the ousted hard-line Islamic militia, each backing different views of how their insurgency should proceed, American spokesman Maj. Scott Nelson said. Nelson declined to give details, saying the military was still trying to work out what impact any lasting split could have on the militants’ operations.
A purported Taliban spokesman said the breakaway faction had about 10 to 15 members and was called Jaish-e-Muslimeen, or Muslim Army, but he dismissed it as an insignificant group.
“These are simple Taliban,” Mullah Hakim Latifi told The Associated Press by telephone from an undisclosed location. “I don’t know why they are doing this but we don’t take it seriously.”