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    Soldiers parade without Kalashnikovs to launch disarmament of Afghanistan

    AMIR SHAH Canadian Press Friday, October 24, 2003

    KUNDUZ, Afghanistan (AP) - Parading without their Kalashnikov rifles, nearly 1,000 former Afghan fighters showed their commitment Friday to laying down their weapons and re-entering civilian life at the start of a UN-sponsored program that aims to disarm this war-scarred nation.

    President Hamid Karzai praised the fighters for their service in jihad, or holy war, against foreign invaders, from the Soviets to al-Qaida. But he called on them to undertake a new jihad "for the reconstruction and rehabilitation of Afghanistan, and to bring new life to the country."

    "If we were the best during the struggle against the foreigners, we are also the best nation for reconstruction," Karzai said at a soccer field in this northern city that hosted the parade, watched by thousands of residents, Afghan leaders and diplomats.

    The program seeks to disarm soldiers, demobilize them and reintegrate them into normal life, a key step to ending the culture of war here after more than 20 years of conflict.

    After the militiamen marched in 100-strong units across the parade ground - a few in uniform, but many wearing traditional Afghan shalwar kameez tunics and baggy pants - Defence Minister Mohammed Fahim was handed the keys to a UN truck containing the weapons turned in by 982 soldiers.

    The program was postponed from a planned July start because of delays in reforms in the Defence Ministry, meant to create more ethnic balance so forces that disarm wouldn't worry about leaving themselves vulnerable to attack by rival factions.

    "I hope it will not be just symbolic. People are tired of weapons," said Abdul Hakim, 45, a former fighter who surrendered his rifle.

    Hakim said the government would now be responsible for security, after people give up their guns in the country that, according to some estimate, has as many as one million weapons. Under the plan, the new national army and police will still be armed.

    Militia fighters who give up their weapons will receive a voucher for $100 US, some clothes, 130 kilograms of food and special identification, said Jim Ocitti, spokesman for the program. The weapons must be working.

    In another few weeks, the former soldiers will return to discuss job prospects - doing manual labour, training for agricultural or demining work, or becoming police officers.

    "The incentives that we are offering are quite solid," Ocitti said. "They wouldn't want to throw away such an opportunity . . . They are very keen to go on with life."

    The pilot program will reach six areas and disarm 100,000 soldiers through next spring, when disarmament is to spread across the country.

    Kunduz province has been relatively peaceful since the U.S.-led coalition ousted the Taliban in late 2001, and is set to be the first site for international peacekeeping troops as they expand outside the capital Kabul.

    It remains to be seen how eager fighters will be to turn over weapons in areas where factional tensions remain, or in provinces where guns are a part of the culture.

    Gen. Abdul Karim, a local commander helping to lead the disarmament drive, said there were more than 9,000 fighters across the area and called on the international community to ensure that the former militiamen find new jobs.

    "People are poor. They need jobs for the future of their children," he said.

    © Copyright 2003 The Canadian Press
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