KABUL, Afghanistan -- A powerful warlord's militias overran a provincial capital yesterday, forcing the governor to flee in what could be the biggest challenge yet to US-backed President Hamid Karzai.
The takeover of Maymana could raise concerns in Washington over the stability of Afghanistan as the country prepares for national elections and American troops face a surge of violence in Iraq.
Forces of Abdul Rashid Dostum stormed into Maymana, the capital of Faryab Province, about 260 miles northwest of Kabul, Interior Minister Ali Ahmad Jalali said.
"They have control of the city," Jalali said, adding that a "massive" force had met little opposition.
Jalali pledged to reinstate the Kabul-appointed governor, Enayatullah Enayat, who fled to the airport, and said Dostum would be ousted from the town.
Enayat will "continue in his job, and we're going to send more police to protect him and allow him to do it," Jalali said at a news conference.
Dostum is an ethnic Uzbek, but the fighting was unrelated to terrorist attacks in neighboring Uzbekistan.
It was the second major militia clash in Afghanistan in less than a month, and threw further doubt on the war-ravaged country's readiness for elections.
The government has deployed 1,500 troops from its US-trained Afghan National Army to the western city of Herat after bloody factional fighting last month left 16 dead, including a Cabinet minister.
US officials had hoped the Afghan army would play an important role in bolstering the 13,500-member military coalition as it pursues Taliban and Al Qaeda militants. The coalition wants the army to eventually supplant militias across the country.
But the force has managed to collect only 8,000 men, despite increased training programs.
US military and embassy officials in Kabul had no immediate comment on the latest fighting or deployment plans.
In unrelated violence, two Afghan army soldiers were among seven people killed across the insurgency-torn south and east, officials said. One died in a gunbattle during a search operation in southern Helmand province. An American soldier was wounded in the battle.
A mine killed another Afghan soldier in neighboring Uruzgan. Three militants and two police officers were also reported killed in Helmand.
Jalali said 750 more soldiers would be deployed in Faryab. "Whatever is necessary for maintaining stability and peace, they are going to do it," he said.
Dostum, a former communist and veteran of Afghanistan's brutal civil wars, ran a swath of the country, including Faryab, as a personal fiefdom in the early 1990s.
He returned to power in the region after helping US forces drive out the Taliban in late 2001 and has since maintained a large private army.
But he has appealed in vain for a top security job in Karzai's administration, and his men have fought repeatedly for control of the territory with Tajik rivals allied with Defense Minister Mohammed Fahim.
Officials in Faryab accused Dostum of trying to drive them out of office for allying too closely with Karzai's government.
Dostum's aide in Kabul said he had discussed the situation in Faryab with elders of the province but had ordered no moves against Enayat or Hashim Khan, the commander of the 200th Afghan army division, who Jalali said had also fled Maymana.
The aide, Akbar Boy, said government troops were welcome in the region but cautioned that there would be a backlash if they sided with the embattled officials, whom he accused of receiving government funds to buy votes ahead of the elections.