More than 80 survivors emerged yesterday from the ruins of the Qalai Janghi fort in northern Afghanistan, where British and American forces participated in last week's slaughter of at least 150 Taliban prisoners of war by soldiers of the Northern Alliance.
The men emerged in small groups, some half torn apart, with open wounds in their legs and chests. It appeared that almost all of them were foreign Taliban volunteers believed to be loyal to Osama bin Laden. The scent of rotting human flesh near the basements they came out of was so strong it was almost impossible to breathe.
The men had managed to survive for seven days in the basement of the fort amid the charred bodies of scores of their comrades. They fought on, even when the American jets bombed the buildings above, leaving them half collapsed in rubble. Then they crouched in the fetid darkness when everyone thought that all the prisoners had been killed, and the recovery workers moved above them, gathering the bodies of the dead.
On Thursday we were a few yards away when the survivors shot dead a recovery worker who tried to go down into the basement to bring out the bodies. The Northern Alliance reacted by firing 20 large rockets into the basement, making huge explosions which sent black clouds of smoke billowing out of the entrance. Still the Taliban men survived.
The first person to come out was a Pakistani volunteer who decided he had had enough. Others followed and Northern Alliance soldiers persuaded some to go back down and bring the remainder out. Slowly, reluctantly, the prisoners came to the surface. They were packed into a container truck by Northern Alliance soldiers and driven away.
The few who were not too badly injured or exhausted will be interrogated, according to the Northern Alliance, but there will be fears for their safety. The foreign volunteers are hated in Afghanistan, where it is now the fashion to blame them for all the Taliban's misdeeds. In battles for the nearby city of Mazar-i-Sharif, some foreign prisoners were herded into container trucks and taken into the desert to die.
The survivors who emerged yesterday could be vital witnesses to what happened at Qalai Janghi. Human rights groups have expressed grave doubts over whether the foreign Taliban's rights as prisoners of war under the Geneva Convention were violated. After the massacres, Northern Alliance troops openly looted the bodies of the dead, prying gold fillings out of their teeth.
There are also fears that US special forces may have over-reacted to the prisoners' revolt when they ordered the air raids on the fort.
The Americans insist their hand was forced after the Taliban prisoners seized rocket launchers and mortars and attacked their gaolers. One CIA agent who was in the fortress interrogating the prisoners was killed.
Questions remain, though, over whether the prisoners' revolt may have been triggered by mistreatment.
In a separate incident three foreign volunteers were found in Mazar-i-Sharif yesterday. It appears they had hidden in a house for almost three weeks after the city was captured.by the Northern Alliance and other Taliban forces fled.
Northern Alliance soldiers surrounded the house and killed the men, believed to be from Uzbekistan.
"They had taken those living in the house hostage said Mohammad Kalik," a local elder, "but the people inside the house managed to warn us what was going on. We moved our families out of the area and told the authorities."
Between 30 and 40 Northern Alliance soldiers surrounded the house at 7am local time "The soldiers started shooting and the Taliban inside returned their fire and threw out grenades," said Mr Kalik.
It was not clear if the three Taliban volunteers had been given a chance to surrender.Reuse content