fears massacre of foreign fighters
By David Rennie in Taloqan, Stephen Robinson and Andy McSmith
FEARS of a massacre of thousands of foreign fighters trapped in Kunduz, the last northern stronghold of the Taliban, were raised last night as the Northern Alliance launched an all-out attack to capture the besieged town.
The 10-day siege of the Kunduz pocket appeared to be moving towards a violent and chaotic end after alliance leaders first announced that a surrender deal had been reached and then said talks had failed and an assault was underway.
But amid reports that hundreds of Afghan Taliban fighters were surrendering, leaving only hardline Arab and other foreign fighters, Downing Street and Washington faced contradictory worries over the fate of the enclave.
Officials feared the international repercussions of a massacre by their unofficial allies, and yet also expressed concern that a large part of the Taliban force could escape unscathed if unreliable Northern Alliance leaders made a deal with them.
United Nations officials who were approached to oversee a mass evacuation have ruled it out, arguing that the area around Kunduz was too dangerous and their forces would be liable to be ambushed.
Even if an evacuation could be mounted in practice, London and Washington appeared to oppose it in principle. "Normal international practice is that people become prisoners so they cannot just walk away," said a Downing Street spokesman.
He added: "What we have made clear all along is that the Northern Alliance and others should behave in a way that avoids atrocities."
The International Committee of the Red Cross said yesterday that between 400 and 600 bodies had been found in the northern Afghan town of Mazar-i-Sharif following its capture by the alliance.
But a spokesman could not say whether the dead had been executed or were killed in the fighting that preceded the fall of the town on Nov 9.
As concern mounted last night in Washington that foreign Taliban might be allowed to leave Kunduz, possibly to fight on elsewhere, Northern Alliance officials promised that the foreigners would not be allowed to leave the country.
There are unknown thousands of foreign Taliban in Kunduz, believed to be a mixture of Pakistanis, Arabs, Chechens and Uzbeks, some with links to al-Qa'eda.
Donald Rumsfeld, the defence secretary, said: "Any idea that those people should be let loose on any basis to go bring terror to other countries and destabilise other countries is unacceptable."
He made clear that he thought the Taliban and their cohorts should either be killed in battle or forced into unconditional surrender and face local justice. For the foreigners captured by the Northern Alliance, the outcome of local justice would be almost certain execution.
However, Daoud Khan, the commander of forces massed to the east of Kunduz, said that Afghan Taliban who wanted to surrender would be granted safe passage to Kandahar, the only other Afghan city in Taliban hands.
He added: "Those who resist, we will fight against them, and they will be killed." Gen Daoud refused to say what would happen to foreign Taliban who asked to surrender.
Hopes of a bloodless conclusion to the siege were raised by the Uzbek warlord, General Abdul Rashid Dostum, who met the top Taliban commander, Mullah Fazil, for talks near Mazar-i-Sharif.
The meeting was held in Gen Dostum's freshly recaptured headquarters, a fortress 100 miles west of Kunduz. Mullah Fazil arrived with a heavily armed squad of bodyguards while senior Northern Alliance commanders were sent to stay in Kunduz as hostages.
Gen Dostum said he had been assured by Mullah Fazil that 14,000 foreign and Afghan Taliban in Kunduz remained under his command and would surrender.
However, a few hours later, the alliance interior minister, Yunus Qanuni, said talks had failed. "We have been forced to choose a military solution. Our forces are advancing. We hope by tomorrow we will have secured Kunduz," he said.
Mr Qanuni accused the Taliban of treachery. "It was a political tactic. They wanted to buy time; they had no intention of surrendering."
To add to the confusion, rivalries between Gen Dostum and Gen Daoud broke into the open, with Gen Daoud saying he controlled five front lines near Kunduz as opposed to Gen Dostum's one and vowing he would take the city first.
His comments fuelled fears that the battle for Kunduz, supposedly a key piece of the global war against terrorism, would descend into a race for the spoils left behind by the Taliban, and for long-term control of the strategic city.
The troops massing for the advance on Kunduz expressed little interest in talk of deals and surrenders. Ahmad Shah, a tank commander, said: "I hate all Taliban. If we send the foreigners abroad, they will continue their activities outside the country. The best way is this: we kill all of them in Afghanistan."