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Fear of Bloodbath as Alliance Advances on Kunduz

23 November 2001

The Northern Alliance and US bombers yesterday mounted what they hope will be the final push on the Taliban-held city of Kunduz after a negotiated surrender fell apart almost as soon as it was signed.

The intensity of the fighting and the prospect of the imminent fall of the city led to fears that it could deteriorate into a bloodbath. The British and Pakistani governments joined the Red Cross and the UN in calling for restraint by the advancing forces.

Amid widespread confusion over whether both sides were committed to a peaceful resolution, the Taliban's commander in Kunduz insisted last night that his troops - including Arab fighters - would surrender tomorrow. Mullah Fahzal, the most senior Taliban figure left in northern Afghanistan, said he was confident that the 12,000 Afghan Taliban and 2,000 foreign fighters who have been trapped in Kunduz since the fall of Mazar-i-Sharif two weeks ago would agree to give up their weapons.

The US, which has special forces attached to the Northern Alliance to act as a restraint, is desperately seeking to avoid a massacre in front of the international media of the Arab, Pakistani and other foreigners who joined the Taliban forces in Kunduz. But Washington is equally determined that these foreign fighters, some of whom it suspects of belonging to al-Qaida, will not be allowed to escape as part of a negotiated surrender. The intention is to imprison them, interrogate them and then decide their fate.

US military planners are watching Kunduz closely, since its fall would release resources for the hunt for Osama bin Laden in the south. It would also open the way for an aid corridor from the north.

As part of mopping up operations elsewhere in Afghanistan, Northern Alliance forces launched a heavy artillery attack close to Kabul yesterday to flush out at least 1,200 Taliban, Arab and Pakistani fighters holed up in the mountains.

For several days alliance commanders in Maidan Shah, about 25 miles west of Kabul, have tried to negotiate their surrender. But hundreds of alliance troops yesterday unleashed rockets, mortar and artillery fire at the Taliban positions. Despite fierce fighting the assault appeared to make little impact.

On the Kunduz front, the alliance rushed tanks and troops from other frontlines to join the assault on the city. B-52 bombers flew over the frontline but dropped their loads close to Kunduz itself. Panicked refugees streamed from the city.

Earlier two Taliban leaders signed an agreement with the Northern Alliance warlord General Abdul Rashid Dostam at his fortress near Mazar-i-Sharif. US special forces were in attendance.

Emerging from their talks, Gen Dostam said he would be sending 5,000 of his soldiers to disarm the Taliban fighters and ensure security in the city.

A hand over of weapons and jeeps would take place tomorrow in the village of Chardara, on the outskirts of Kunduz, aides added.

Gen Dostam said the Afghan Taliban would be disarmed and allowed to return home to their villages. But he said the foreign fighters - including Arabs, Chechens, Pakistanis, Uzbeks and Chinese Uyghurs - would be taken to his fortress where they would be separated into terrorists and non-terrorists.

Chaos ensued when word of the agreement failed to reach Kunduz, more than 100 miles away. Taliban fighters opened up with mortars for the first time in a week and the Northern Alliance forces sent in waves of tanks and troops in reply.

Adding to the confusion, Yunus Qanuni, who is emerging as one of the key figures in the alliance, said: "We have tried to settle the issue of Kunduz through negotiation but we have been forced to choose a military solution."

Pakistan's leader, General Pervez Musharraf, expressed concern over the fate of Pakistanis fighting with the Taliban. He urged the Red Cross to do all it could to prevent massacres of foreign fighters at the hands of the Afghans.

In a Downing Street briefing, Alastair Campbell said: "We do not want a bloodbath in Kunduz, but nor do we want to let anyone escape so they can regroup and form terrorist networks elsewhere."

Luke Harding in Mazar-i-Sharif, Rory McCarthy in Kabul and Ewen MacAskill.
Published in the Guardian of London.
Guardian Newspapers Limited 2001.

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