Slaughter in the fort of horror
Bodies with tied hands raise fears Taliban prisoners were executed at fortress
Burt Herman
THE KILLING FIELDS: Northern Alliance fighters wander yesterday among the corpses from a bloody uprising in Qalai Janghi.
QALAI JANGHI FORTRESS, Afghanistan - Corpses with bound hands, dust mixed with dried blood, spent mortar rounds littering fields where horses grazed: No part of this massive fortress was left unstained by death in one of the most ferocious battles of the war on the Taliban.

In a field strewn with about 50 bodies, an Associated Press photographer yesterday saw that some corpses had their arms tied with cloth - contrary to claims by a key Northern Alliance commander that none had been tied up.

Nearly all the Taliban prisoners involved in the three-day uprising at the Qalai Janghi fortress were killed, Alliance officials say - perhaps around 450 fighters, though the precise number was uncertain.

Full details may never be known of the uprising by Taliban who were being held prisoner at the fortress near the northern city of Mazar-e-Sharif or of the fierce assault that ended the rebellion. Red Cross workers yesterday began hauling bodies away, and with the remains likely went much of the evidence of what happened.

The questions include how the prisoners - including Pakistanis, Chechens, Arabs and other non-Afghans - got access to weapons, and whether some prisoners were executed after Alliance troops gained control or died in the battle.

The uprising was put down with the help of U.S. air strikes, U.S. special forces and other covert troops believed to be British. At the Pentagon yesterday, Rear Adm. John Stufflebeem said American officials do not have a clear picture of what happened. "There's a lot of questions that obviously need to be asked or answers that need to be obtained as to how that came about, or how that can be prevented in the future."

Meanwhile, in a separate incident in southern Afghanistan, Reuters yesterday quoted a senior Pashtun commander as saying that scores of captured Taliban fighters who refused to surrender last week near Kandahar were executed despite protests by U.S. forces at the scene.

The commander said tribal elders and officers tried to persuade the Taliban to surrender before the battle for the town of Takteh Pol, which sits between Kandahar and the Pakistani border.

"But they replied with abuse so we had no choice. We executed around 160 Taliban that were captured. They were made to stand in a long line and five or six of our fighters used light machine guns on them," said the commander of forces loyal to Gul Agha, a former mujahideen governor of Kandahar.

The commander declined to be identified for security reasons. His account could not be independently verified.

But he said seven or eight U.S. military personnel, who had been filming the fighting, tried unsuccessfully to prevent the killings.

As for the Qalai Janghi fortress, soldiers were seen yesterday cutting the bindings off the bodies with knives and scissors. One soldier used a piece of metal to pry gold fillings from a dead man's teeth. Bodies dotted the dusty ground and dry scrub of the compound, some falling together in trenches, many shoeless.

In another field, the bodies of many horses lay with gaping wounds.

The battle also brought the United States' first combat death in Afghanistan: CIA officer Johnny "Mike" Spann, whose body was recovered yesterday. Five American soldiers were also wounded when a U.S. bomb landed off-target.

Swaggering through the fortress yesterday in a long brown robe cinched by a wide black leather belt, Northern Alliance Gen. Rashid Dostum insisted the prisoners were treated properly but had nonetheless rebelled.

"We did not tie them. We brought them here to be safer," he told reporters.

Dostum is one of Afghanistan's most feared and notorious warlords.

When his fighters took Mazar-e-Sharif from the Taliban in 1997, they threw prisoners into wells and tossed in grenades to finish them off, the United Nations reported. The Taliban settled the score when they recaptured the city in 1998; a U.N. report charged the Islamic militia with executing thousands of people.

This time, according to Dostum, the first apparent act of rebellion occurred Saturday, when a Taliban prisoner detonated a grenade that killed two of his commanders and seriously injured another.

Dostum said he sent a general the next day to visit the prisoners and assure them they would be treated in accordance with international law.

"But they once again attacked my general, threw a grenade, attacked soldiers and took their guns," Dostum said.

Another soldier at the fort said he was on the field and that some of the prisoners were tied up when the fighting began.

During the journalists' visit, Dostum warned them to stay away from the southern section where the pro-Taliban prisoners had been held, including the field with the bodies.

But some journalists went anyway.

The general said there were "dangerous people" at large who could be among the dead. "They are suicidal people and one can expect anything from them," Dostum said.

Northern Alliance soldiers in the compound were seen later tossing a grenade into a gutter leading to a basement in one of the buildings, presumably to flush out any remaining prisoners.

About 30 Alliance fighters were killed and more than 200 wounded in the fighting, Dostum said. He declined to say how many prisoners were killed.

Dostum said he was holding 6,000 more Taliban fighters from Kunduz and promised they would be treated humanely.

Dostum toured the fortress with Noorullah Noori, former Taliban governor of Balkh province where Mazar-e-Sharif is located.

Noori said he had told the fighters to surrender. "I feel sad about these events. It was really in vain," Noori said. "It shouldn't have happened."