Rebel Afghan governor gives way after political deal

AIBAK, Afghanistan (Reuters) - An Afghan provincial governor who had defied President Ashraf Ghani’s order to leave office agreed to step down on Tuesday but scores of armed men gathered in front of his compound as a standoff continued over the position of his deputy.

The dispute in the northern region of Samangan has underlined the divisions facing Ghani, who has struggled to impose his authority on powerful regional leaders and who has been locked for weeks in a separate conflict with the powerful governor of neighboring Balkh province.

After refusing to leave office this week, Samangan Governor Abdulkarim Khaddam agreed to go under a deal between his Jamiat-i Islami party and Ghani’s office in Kabul, party officials said. In exchange, Khaddam will take a position on the High Peace Council, a body set up to handle reconciliation efforts with the Taliban.

New Governor Abdul Latif Ibrahimi took office in Samangan, while the two sides agreed that Khaddam’s deputy Ziauddin Zia would remain in place. “It is my right to be in this position,” Zia told reporters.

However large groups of armed men gathered near the governor’s compound in the capital Aibak to try to force Zia out as local elders sought to calm the situation.

“I am the new deputy governor and I will not let anyone else take this job. I have my armed men here,” said Sefatullah Samangani, a provincial council member from the rival Junbish-i Milli party who was named as Zia’s replacement before Tuesday’s compromise.

With Taliban fighters active across much of the country and the capital Kabul regularly hit by devastating suicide attacks, the dispute in Samangan has highlighted the divisions undermining Ghani’s government ahead of parliamentary elections scheduled this year.

While nominally partners in the national unity government created after the disputed 2014 presidential election, Ghani’s relations with Jamiat have deteriorated sharply, while ethnic divisions have become increasingly bitter.

The divisions have been deepened by the prolonged standoff between Ghani and Balkh Governor Atta Mohammad Noor, one of the most senior politicians in Jamiat and a possible rival to Ghani in next year’s presidential election.

Many in Jamiat - mainly supported by Persian-speaking ethnic Tajiks from the north - accuse Ghani of monopolizing power in defiance of the 2014 government pact and favoring his own Pashtun supporters from eastern Afghanistan.

In turn, Pashtun critics of Jamiat accuse the party and its supporters of undermining national unity and encouraging local strongmen to defy the central government.

Writing by James Mackenzie; Editing by Matthew Mpoke Bigg