LONDON, April 16: The survival of the interim government of Afghanistan is threatened by infighting between the Pakhtoon royalist supporters of the former king, Zahir Shah, and rival Tajik ethnic faction that is dominating the present administration.

Well-placed Afghan and Western diplomatic sources told Dawn here on Tuesday that the imminent return of Zahir Shah has provoked a backlash against his supporters from their ethnic rivals in the interim government, who fear losing power.

The ethnic Tajik ministers in the cabinet have mobilised troops to intimidate the Pakhtoon royalists while publicly welcoming the return of a monarch seen as the only remaining unifying figure for Afghanistan and who can help oversee the process of holding the Loya Jirga to elect the next transitional government for the war-ravaged country.

There are reports of fighting on the western outskirts of the capital, Kabul, in an apparent attempt by Tajik leaders to tighten their grip on the government and to rattle the king’s fellow Pakhtoons.

Diplomats fear that the 87-year-old monarch, expected within days, will not be fit for the power struggle that awaits him, after 29 years’ exile in Rome. The supporters of Zahir Shah and the Italian authorities have been avoiding to divulge the exact date of return of the former king for security reasons.

The world community and many Afghans see Zahir Shah a unifying figure, but the dominant Tajik faction in the interim administration sees his presence as a return to the same old Pakhtoon domination of the centuries old history of the country.

“The process of selection of delegates for the Loya Jirga has already started, but evidence has emerged of efforts to intimidate Pakhtoon clans in the west of Kabul,” one diplomatic source said.

On Tuesday some media reports from the British press quoted a western diplomat as saying that Gen Fahim was leading a Tajik campaign to intimidate rivals who could not be bought in advance of the June assembly. “He’s got the most muscle and he’s making a lot of promises.”

Human Rights Watch, a New York-based group, has complained that ethnic militia’s attacks on Paktoons communities in the north could undermine the Loya Jirga, though there is no evidence linking the defence minister to such attacks.

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