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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Afghan Warlords Call a Cease-Fire

Mazar-i-Sharif, Afghanistan -- Two rival warlords whose troops fought pitched battles leaving scores dead in northern Afghanistan signed a cease-fire Thursday and have started to withdraw their tanks and other weaponry from the battlefield, both sides said.

It was not clear, however, if the deal would hold. Fighting raged up until the agreement was reached and tension remained high in the field, commanders said.

The cease-fire came after 24 hours of fighting that left "high numbers of casualties," according to the United Nations. One warring side said the death toll was more than 60, while the other played the numbers down. One of the warlords, Atta Mohammed, said that the cease-fire had taken effect immediately. "I am sure this cease-fire will hold," he said.

The agreement was reached in talks with Afghan Interior Minister Ali Ahmad Jalali, who traveled to Mazar-i-Sharif on Thursday from the capital, Kabul. Both of the warring sides claim allegiance to President Hamid Karzai and are members of the Northern Alliance, which helped oust the former Taliban regime in late 2001.

It was not immediately clear what sparked the clashes. A government spokesman in Kabul said it was most likely due to disputes over land or access to water, the cause of repeated clashes in the past two years.

Earlier Thursday, hundreds of rival militiamen with tanks and artillery fought each other across a narrow front line about 20 kilometers west of Mazar-i-Sharif, the main city in northern Afghanistan. Atta said some of his soldiers and some civilians were killed, but he was not sure how many.

A spokesman for the UN mission in Afghanistan, Manoel de Almeida e Silva, said the conflict "was very intense with both sides using tanks as well as mortars." A local freelance journalist in Mazar-i-Sharif said residents were afraid the fighting would enter the city of about 1.5 million people.

Almeida e Silva said fighting also occurred in the town of Maimana, about 200 kilometers southwest of Mazar-i-Sharif, with an unknown number of casualties. U.S. military spokesman Major Richard Sater said from Bagram Air Base, the military headquarters north of Kabul, that U.S. officials were concerned by the fighting and were closely monitoring it.

The fighting came as the Afghan government and the United Nations signed a deal in the capital, Kabul, paving the way to deploy teams of UN and Afghan personnel in cities across Afghanistan to start a much-delayed program to disarm militiamen loyal to warlords. Disarming the tens of thousands of militiamen is essential if the Afghan government is to be able to build and deploy a national army to maintain security.

It is also an important step if a NATO-led peacekeeping mission is to expand to regions outside Kabul. However, convincing the warlords, many of whom are also provincial governors, to agree to surrender their weapons will be a major challenge. Some of them are allegedly involved in drug trafficking and other crimes and may see little benefit in giving up the arms that keep them in power.

The first disarmament team is expected in the northern city of Kunduz on Oct. 25. Teams are then scheduled to head for the cities of Gardez, Mazar-i-Sharif and Kabul later this year.