Hundreds of al-Qa'ida prisoners killed in riot

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The Independent Online

Hundreds of foreign fighters, believed to be loyal to Osama bin Laden, were reported killed yesterday, as well as one US special forces soldier, in a bloody uprising of pro-Taliban prisoners at a fort near Mazar-i-Sharif. Northern Alliance forces suppressed the uprising with support from American warplanes.

According to a Pentagon spokesman, the riot at the Qalai Janghi prison was contained after several hours. But the desperate resistance was the most violent illustration yet of the dilemma posed by non-Afghan militants ­ mostly Arabs, Pakistanis and Chechens ­ who fought for the Taliban but believe they can expect no quarter from the victorious Northern Alliance or its US patrons.

It may also be a foretaste of events at Kunduz, the last Taliban stronghold in northern Afghanistan, whose fall seemed certain yesterday as thousands of Taliban forces surrendered and Northern Alliance forces began to enter the city.

US troops reportedly landed in helicopters at Kandahar airport last night to boost America's military presence for the anticipated attack on the final Taliban stronghold. Mohammed Annwar, of the Achakzai tribe, said large Chinook helicopters dropped off the troops at the southern city's airfield.

It was also reported that a British journalist was badly beaten by Taliban fighters during the Qalai Janghi uprising. The unnamed reporter was interviewing prisoners when violence broke out. Some Alliance leaders were talking of an amnesty for all their opponents, 48 hours before the start of talks between several Afghan factions, in Bonn, Germany, on a post-Taliban government. But after reports of summary executions by the Northern Alliance in Mazar-i-Sharif and Kabul, foreign fighters loyal to Osama bin Laden cornered in Kunduz are said to have vowed to fight to the death.

The United Nations is unable to provide the security guarantees they are seeking, and Washington has made it clear that, although it will permit Afghan members of the Taliban forces to return home, it does not want al-Qa'ida fighters to escape.

Donald Rumsfeld, the US Secretary of Defence, said these men faced the bleak choice of all defeated soldiers, to be taken prisoner or to die.

The battle at Qalai Janghi was chaotic and bloody. "They were all killed, and very few were arrested," a Northern Alliance spokesman said of the non-Afghans. The battle began when at least 300 prisoners, some with smuggled weapons, tried to escape. General Abdul Rashid Dostum, the Alliance commander, sent in 500 fighters. The Alliance prevailed after US planes bombed part of the compound.

The Pentagon confirmed that its special forces were inside the fortress, butdenied that any of its personnel had been killed.

Meanwhile, Robin Cook signalled that regular British troops will not be sent to fight. The Commons Leader said: "There has been no situation in which we have put them into the ground civil war and I don't imagine that will change."