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Associated Press

KHOJA KOTKAI, Afghanistan (AP) - Tank fire boomed through a barren valley Saturday as a turf battle raged for a second day just west of the Afghan capital. In Kabul itself, British peacekeepers traded fire with gunmen, and in the south a rocket just missed the offices of the Kandahar governor.

The unrest came only days before Afghanistan's deposed monarch is due to return from exile to help lead the devastated nation toward peace after 23 years of war. An Italian Foreign Ministry official said former king Mohammad Zaher Shah, who lives in Rome, was due back in Afghanistan in the middle of the week.

The fighting in Khoja Kotkai, 30 miles west of Kabul, pitted two ethnic Pashtun commanders against each other for control of a valley in Wardak province.

Officials of interim Prime Minister Hamid Karzai's administration, which took power in December after U.S. bombs and northern alliance troops and ousted the Taliban, played down the skirmish between forces loyal to Gen. Zafar Uddin and those of his rival, Nangialai.

"It's impossible in three to four months that everybody joins hands to sing a nice song," said Tourism Minister Zalmay Rassoul, whose predecessor, Abdul Rahman, was beaten to death in broad daylight at Kabul airport on Feb. 14.

Civilians seemed completely unworried by the fighting. A steady stream of buses, trucks and taxis packed with people continued to flow across the dirt road through the valley - the main highway between Kabul and Kandahar.

In the capital, about 30 gunmen fired AK-47 assault rifles at a British contingent of international peacekeepers Friday night, sparking a firefight, said Lt. Col. Neal Peckham, spokesman for the force. No one was injured.

Peacekeepers said the armed men fled but that seven of them were later arrested. Five were wearing Afghan police uniforms, one was in combat fatigues and one was in civilian dress. All were handed over to the interim government.

In the southern city of Kandahar late Friday night, a rocket missed the office of Gov. Gul Agha, exploding on the grounds of a nearby mosque, said Pashtoon, a local police official who uses only one name. No one was hurt.

A group of U.S. special forces members are staying in the governor's office compound, and a team of U.S. Army reservists involved in humanitarian projects is also working out of the complex.

Afghan police said they detained several suspects for questioning.

Attacks on international peacekeepers and the interim government have been frequent. In the last week, two Chinese-made rockets were fired at a peacekeeper's compound, and the defense minister was targeted in a bombing in that killed five people and injured more than 50.

The battle in Khoja Kotkai appeared to divide officials within the interim government. Officials at the defense and interior ministries said they supported Uddin's faction, while a Karzai spokesman called Nangialai an ally.

Sher Mohammed, a regional intelligence officer loyal to Uddin, said Nangialai was surrounded and had lost seven fighting positions by Saturday morning.

Sporadic automatic weapons fire echoed through the hills all day as two tanks from Uddin's side moved in, each firing dozens of shells toward a mountain. Nangialai's troops fired mortar rounds across the valley floor, sending clouds of brown dust billowing into the sky.

Copyright 2002 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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