Town captured by new player in old war

PUBLISHED : Monday, 13 February, 1995, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 13 February, 1995, 12:00am

A NEW Muslim fundamentalist group, promising to end the bloody power struggle which has riven Afghanistan, gave weight to its claims by capturing a key town at the weekend.

But Western diplomats say there is no guarantee that victory for the Talibaans - which means students - will deliver the country from years of misery.

The Talibaans' capture of Maidan Shahr, 30 kilometres from Kabul, for the first time puts them in a position to attack the capital and take control of the Government from the fractured Mujahedeen administration.

In the past three months, seven of the country's 29 provinces have fallen to the Talibaan force of about 20,000 fighters.

Fundamentalists, they favour total seclusion of women from society and would ban 'un-Islamic' activities such as chess and soccer.

Most are the children of Afghan refugees who fled to Pakistan after the Soviet invasion. The refugees sent their children to religious schools in Pakistan before returning home after the Soviet withdrawal in 1989.

Surprisingly, the fundamentalists are winning popular support from a public tired of war and willing to try anyone new who offers even the smallest hope of peace and relieving a growing humanitarian crisis.

International relief agency CARE has warned that more than 200,000 people will be forced out of Kabul this winter due to 'disease, hunger and cold'.

It says more children under the age of five are dying of disease in Afghanistan than in any other country in the world.

World Health Organisation officials estimate that up to 40 per cent of children in the refugee camps around the eastern city of Jalalabad are suffering from acute respiratory infections.

Those camps are home to more than 80,000 refugees.

They provide the only safe haven for people who fled Kabul since the most recent fighting began this winter.

One senior aid official involved in managing the camps said: 'People are frustrated here. They are welcoming any kind of change and I see that some of them might think this [the Talibaans] is the only solution.' Western governments are being encouraged to increase aid to the provinces where relative peace has now returned.