Bloody end to al-Qa'ida's last stand in Kandahar

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The last stand of al-Qa'ida, six of whose men have been besieged for more than a month in a hospital in Kandahar, came yesterday at 1.45pm, amid the thump of exploding grenades and bursts of machine-gun fire.

The last stand of al-Qa'ida, six of whose men have been besieged for more than a month in a hospital in Kandahar, came yesterday at 1.45pm, amid the thump of exploding grenades and bursts of machine-gun fire.

For 10 hours, ever since the first attack was made by Afghan troops – advised by US special forces – the young men in the hospital must have known they were going to die.

Rejecting appeals for them to surrender, the al-Qa'ida members fought to the last, the ferocity of their resistance impressing even Afghan and American officers.

It was not a smooth operation. The first attack, at 3.45am, on the five rooms where the men were barricaded on the second floor of the Mirwais hospital, failed. One Afghan soldier was taken to hospital with a bullet in the stomach.

Major Chris Miller, an officer in the 12-member US Special Forces unit advising some 100 Afghan government soldiers, said al-Qa'ida's men had "fought fiercely so Afghan forces were forced to back down." He insisted his own men had played no direct role in the fight.

As the siege continued on a bright but cold morning in Kandahar, there were some signs of desperation among the Afghans. A small fire started in the hospital and was put out by the fire brigade. Apparently, the rooms where the men were hiding were awash with water from the hoses. At one stage, police could be heard talking about a bizarre plan to put an electric cable in the water and electrocute the al-Qaida men.

In fact, the siege ended more conventionally. The men, all Arabs from Saudi Arabia, Yemen and Algeria, were not well armed. According to Mohammed Rasul, the catering manager of the hospital, who had fed the men until their food was cut off two weeks ago, they "had only one Russian made pistol and a number of grenades."

At exactly 1pm yesterday, the final assault began. There was the sound of four grenades exploding, the sound slightly muffled as if they had blown up inside a room. "There was a huge gun battle," said Major Miller later. There was the occasional pistol shot, possibly the al-Qaida men firing off their last rounds. An Afghan soldier could be seen jumping in through the windows of one of the rooms. Over the next 45 minutes there were a further eight explosions but increasingly – from a distance of about 300 yards – we could hear the ripple of machine gun fire.

"We tried to take them alive but it was not possible," claimed Khalid Pashtunyar, the spokesman for the governor of Kandahar, Gul Agha, and the Afghan Foreign Ministry.

The truth is not clear. Four Afghan soldiers were wounded by grenade fragments or bullets and the rest may not have been in a mood to take prisoners.

Dr Musa, an emergency doctor, who went into the rooms where al-Qa'ida's men had died, said later: "They were all killed by bullet wounds, two were lying in a corridor, two were lying under a bed and the other two in a third room."

The bloody end to the siege brings to a conclusion one of the strangest episodes in the Afghan war. It has been a conflict notable for mass surrenders rather than willingness to fight and die. But the wounded members of al-Qaida, originally numbering 19 and brought to Mirwais hospital on 9 December, were different.

The men had all been injured in the fighting around Kandahar airport. Mohammed Rasul, recalled: "Some were badly wounded. One had lost a leg and others had been hit in the stomach. Mostly, they were between 20 and 25 years old. I could not talk to them because they only spoke Arabic." Some did not even speak that. Two were Uighurs from China fighting for independence.

At the time the men entered the hospital, the fate of Kandahar was in the balance. Under the weight of US bombings and demoralised by mass defections, Taliban support melted away. Mullah Omar fled. It must have been a shock for these men to find al-Qa'ida had collapsed without much of a fight.

They may have been armed when they entered the hospital. In any case they took over the floor where they were being kept. Gul Agha had other priorities. He thought the men would eventually give up.

He was almost right. Some of the 19 escaped. The two Uighurs were lured into another room by a doctor they trusted – then were arrested. On 8 January, an 18-year-old jumped from a window and tried to escape but was surrounded and blew himself up. Food was cut off from the men but they had somehow accumulated several months' supply. By this week, only six men were left.

Throughout the siege, Mirwais hospital went on functioning. Afghans are used to tolerating a high level of violence in their lives. Even yesterday, there were relatives impatiently waiting to visit patients while the gun battle raged. One man who brushed past me explained: "I am a doctor and one of my patients has died. I want to bring the body to the hospital."

The military command evidently decided the hospital siege was an ideal moment to show the world it was not just American troops that were pursuing al-Qa'ida. Major Miller said US Special Forces had started training men loyal to Gul Agha a week ago but insisted the 12 US soldiers at the scene of yesterday's battle had left the fighting to the Afghans.

Are there any other remnants of al-Qaida or the Taliban still organised and prepared to fight in southern Afghanistan?

Local Afghan leaders say they do not believe so. A press report saying 5,000 Taliban with 450 tanks, armoured personnel carriers and pick-up trucks had fled to the mountains of Ghazni province east of Kandahar were derided by Qari Baba, the governor of Ghazni. He said: "There is no gathering of Taliban here, no trucks and no armour."

As the battle ended yesterday, the people of Kandahar seemed largely unconcerned. Even Mr Rasul admitted he was "more than happy that we don't have six armed men in our hospital anymore".