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First Peacekeepers Arrive In Kabul

The first contingent of mulitnational peacekeepers arrived in the Afghan capital Friday, launching a six-month mission to protect the new interim government.

A convoy of military vehicles carrying 80 British Royal Marines entered Kabul under a helicopter escort from Bagram air base, 40 miles to the north.

The convoy was delayed several hours to accompany Afghan dignitaries flying in to Bagram and escort them into the capital for the installation Saturday of Hamid Karzai, a Pashtun tribal leader from southern Afghanistan, and his Cabinet.

Two separate convoys made the journey bound for the British Embassy in Kabul.

The trucks traveled a road heavily mined on either side from decades of civil war, and between craters blasted out by U.S. warplanes during weeks of bombing targeting the Taliban regime and members of the al-Qaida terrorist network.

The British soldiers were the vanguard of a force that will grow to 3,000 to 5,000, assigned to ensure the safety of the interim Cabinet until an Afghan council determines a more permanent government.

"We are very happy that they are coming because this is the only guarantee that we will have peace," said a baker, Mohammed Sadar.

But many Afghans appeared unwilling to accept a long-term international presence in their capital.

"They should leave Afghanistan when we are sure of peace," said Ghulam Dastigir Khan.

"We don't want them to stay forever. We are Muslims. They are not," said Khan, a cigarette vendor who hopes the soldiers will boost his current income of about one dollar a day.

Earlier, as the troops headed toward Kabul, Karzai was meeting senior ministers of the incoming Cabinet, U.N. officials and American diplomats at the presidential palace. Black limousines with tinted windows and armored vehicles waited outside.

The U.N. Security Council voted unanimously Thursday to approve a peace force authorized to use military force if necessary to protect themselves and the new government.

Not all Afghans were happy with that robust mandate.

Mohammed Fahim, the defense minister in Karzai's Cabinet, said Thursday only 1,000 men would be permitted in Kabul on "symbolic" peacekeeping duties, while the rest should remain in reserve in Bagram.

The multinational troops would not be empowered to disarm belligerents, interfere in Afghan affairs or use force, he told The Associated Press.

"They are here because they want to be. But their presence is as a symbol," Fahim said. "The security is the responsibility of Afghans."

Other officials of the new government — including Karzai — have welcomed the peacekeeping force, accepting that its role is more than symbolic, and that it will enforce security in the capital.

Fahim said an armed Afghan police force would be in Kabul working with the peacekeepers, adding that "the peacekeepers can patrol if they want to."

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