Fear of bloodbath as eerie silence falls on Kunduz

War on Terrorism: Kunduz
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The Independent Online

The fate of thousands of foreign Taliban volunteers trapped inside the city of Kunduz hung in the balance on Friday. The Northern Alliance claimed a deal had been made with Afghan Taliban commanders for the city's surrender, but there appeared to be no deal for the foreigners. The risk of mass slaughter remains high.

The foreign volunteers, believed to include around 2,000 members of Osama bin Laden's al-Qa'ida network, are thought to have vowed to fight to the death unless they are given safe passage out of the country. But the US Defence Secretary, Donald Rumsfeld, has said he would rather they were killed than be allowed to escape and the Northern Alliance says they will not be given safe passage.

An eerie calm fell over the front lines yesterday, where only a day before there had been chaos. The Northern Alliance guns fell silent, the tanks retreated up the road, and soldiers sat in the sun. The only action was the B-52s and fighters circling the skies, relentlessly bombing Taliban positions. On the ground, the Battle of Kunduz stopped as abruptly as it had begun.

It appears that Thursday's fighting, in which Northern Alliance forces attacked Taliban positions, was prompted by a turf battle between Alliance commanders. The Taliban leader negotiating for surrender is Mullah Mohammed Fazil, who presided over the massacre of up to 300 civilians at Yakalowng earlier this year, in which a boy was skinned alive. But Mr Fazil has not been talking to the ethnic Tajik-dominated leadership of the Northern Alliance, which has captured Kabul and is besieging Kunduz from the east. Instead, he has been trekking west to Mazar-i-Sharif, to meet the ethnic Uzbek general, Rashid Dostum, who has little time for his Tajik allies. It now seems that Thursday's fighting began after General Dostum had agreed a deal with Mullah Fazil – but before the mullah could return to Kunduz to inform the Taliban.

To add to the confusion, the foreign volunteers are not interested in a surrender on General Dostum's terms.

From his hospital bed, Amruddin, a Taliban defector, explained how fighting had broken out after Pakistani volunteers tried to stop him and other Afghan Taliban defecting.

"We'd been planning to defect for a week," said Amruddin, who surrendered along with 200 fellow Taliban. "But when we tried to cross the front line, which is manned by Pakistani volunteers, they attacked us and we radioed the Northern Alliance for help. Then they attacked the foreigners."

The foreigners have massacred 470 Afghan Taliban trying to defect, according to the Northern Alliance.

General Dostum said that under the terms he had agreed with Mullah Fazil, the Afghan Taliban would be granted safe passage to their homes in Afghanistan, but the foreign volunteers would be arrested. There are rumours he is paying the Afghan Taliban for their surrender although it is not certain that all of them will do so.

It is the vogue in Afghanistan at the moment to blame the foreigners for everything, and pretend no divisions exist between Afghans. "Those foreigners have committed crimes in our country. We will not hand them over to the United Nations," General Mohammed Daud, the Tajik Alliance commander besieging Kunduz from the east, said yesterday. "They will be tried in Afghanistan." But many, doubtless not least the foreigners themselves, fear they will be butchered. Alliance soldiers are openly threatening to "make kebabs out of the Arabs", and General Dostum's troops in particular have a reputation for slaughter.

Some believe the Alliance will claim foreign volunteers refused to surrender, and present any casualties as the victims of fighting.

Refugees fleeing Kunduz claim that one massacre is already going on – of civilians dying as American bombs fall on Khanabad, near the front line. One woman fleeing yesterday said a 14-year-old girl had been killed in bombing on Wednesday. She also said a man called Agha Jan had been killed along with two members of his family, and a family of 12 had been killed in their home. Khanabad lies behind the Taliban front line, and it is impossible to confirm the claims. There may be a large concentration of foreign fighters, mostly Pakistani, around the town.

The Americans appear to have killed a Northern Alliance soldier late on Thursday when a bomb fell way off target, more than 10 miles inside Northern Alliance territory.There was no clue as to why an American bomb had landed there, so far from the Taliban positions.

It is also rumoured that planes from Pakistan are still landing at Kunduz airport and leaving again by night. Nobody knows who is leaving on them.

General Pervez Musharraf, the President of Pakistan, appealed to the US, Britain and the UN yesterday to intervene to defuse the imminent threat of mass slaughter. He called on the Allies to use their influence with the Northern Alliance to try and ensure that those within the city who wish to surrender can do so.