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KABUL, Afghanistan -- The first British peacekeepers flew into Afghanistan on Thursday as the United Nations approved their mission to help the nation heal after decades of war. Even as they landed, the Afghan defense minister insisted they would have no authority to use force.
Fifty-three British Royal Marines landed at Bagram air base north of the capital, part of an initial contingent of up to 200 peacekeepers that will move into Kabul ahead of Saturday's inauguration of an interim administration.
The U.N. Security Council unanimously backed the British-led multinational force for the Kabul area. The force, which will eventually number 3,000-5,000 troops, was authorized to take military action as it helps keep security under the interim government, which is to rule for six months.
The head of the incoming government, Hamid Karzai, has welcomed a more powerful role for the international troops. The interim foreign minister, Abdullah Abdullah, sent a letter to the Security Council last week agreeing to a clause allowing military action, backing off an earlier refusal.
But interim Defense Minister Mohammed Fahim, reflecting an unease over the presence of foreign forces and their involvement in factional feuds, was opposed. He insisted the multinational force will have no authority to disarm belligerents, interfere in Afghan affairs or use force.
"They are here because they want to be. But their presence is as a symbol. The security is the responsibility of Afghans," Fahim said of the peacekeepers. "The peacekeepers can patrol if they want to."
"They have no right to disarm anyone," said Fahim, a leader in the faction that controls Kabul. Some new government ministers returning from exile "feel they need the peacekeepers for protection, but when they arrive here they will see that the situation is okay and that it is not necessary."
The agreement signed by four Afghan factions setting up the interim government authorized the security force, initially in Kabul and its surroundings and possibly elsewhere later on. Its primary role is to provide security for the new government, its buildings, the main airport at Baghram outside the capital, and the approaches to Kabul.
"The United Kingdom is ready to go," said Jeremy Greenstock, Britain's ambassador to the United Nations. The Security Council, he said, has provided "some new hope for what has been a pretty miserable life for Afghans over the last few years."
U.S. Ambassador John Negroponte added: "It was important to send that signal of support for the interim government."
The government agreement signed in Germany by Afghan factions mandated that all Afghan military units are to withdraw "from Kabul and other urban centers or other areas in which the U.N.-mandated force is deployed."
Many Afghans want peacekeepers to prevent the groups that make up the Northern Alliance from returning to the bitter feuding that marked their 1992-96 rule, during which they destroyed entire Kabul neighborhoods and killed 50,000 people, most of them civilians.