Just as a surrender was apparently being put into effect at Kunduz yesterday morning, the Northern Alliance launched a fierce assault either a tragic mistake or an act of treachery. Either way, by last night the battle for Kunduz appeared to be heading towards a brutal climax.
After a desultory week-long siege, the city woke up yesterday to the thud of Taliban shells, the piercing shrieks of anti-Taliban rockets and the desperate flight of women clutching billowing white burqas about them as they ran for safety.
Hundreds of Taliban fighters also streamed over the front line to surrender while their former comrades, foreign fighters and hardline Taliban, fired rockets and mortars at them.
The suspicion and hatred and the blood feuds had always meant that an orderly surrender of Taliban and foreign forces would be difficult to achieve.
As American bombers once again resumed their pounding and fierce fighting erupted in the muddy plains around the besieged city the Northern Alliance's Interior Minister, Yunus Qanuni, said: "We have tried to settle the issue of Kunduz through negotiations. But we have been forced to choose a military solution."
The reality behind those words was that if an agreement cannot be hammered out, Kunduz may become another bloody symbol of Afghanistan's internecine wars, with the 14,000 trapped fighters of the Taliban and their al-Qa'ida allies facing a grim future.
The Afghans among them are fortunate. Hundreds have already defected or surrendered, and many others are likely to follow. But the foreigners belonging to al-Qa'ida, about 5,000 Arabs, Pakistanis, Chechens and a small number of Uzbeks, are being blamed for the misery of Afghanistan and can expect little quarter. Al-Qa'ida fighters have also been accused of shooting Afghans who had sought to give themselves up.
Some al-Qa'ida fighters are believed to have escaped. The Northern Alliance claimed that two Pakistani Air Force Hercules C-130s had taken off from Kunduz with members of Pakistani special forces on board.
In Islamabad yesterday, the Pakistani leader, General Pervez Musharraf, called on the International Red Cross to try to save his fellow countrymen and other foreign fighters who were captured by the Alliance. But Jakob Kellenburger, the Red Cross's president, said the organisation could not "get involved in political negotiations on conditions of surrender".
The Americans also made their position clear. Donald Rumsfeld, the Defence Secretary, said bluntly that al-Qa'ida's foreign fighters must be apprehended and disarmed. With the quick collapse of the Taliban, there appears to be less willingness to cater to Pakistani sensibilities.
In theory, the defenders of Kunduz have until today to surrender, and last night there were further talks between the Alliance, the Taliban and al-Qa'ida fighters. Under the scheme the Taliban would be disarmed and then set free while al-Qa'ida fighters would be held in custody.
But it was far from certain that the Islamist volunteers would agree to a deal, and the Alliance troops were preparing for a possible break-out attempt.
At one stage, an agreement appeared to be signed if not sealed, with the Taliban agreeing to abandon Kunduz and the foreign fighters. The Alliance commander General Abdul Rashid Dostum even announced that an agreement had been reached after a meeting with Taliban officials in Mazar-i-Sharif that included their deputy defence minister, Mullah Fazil Muslimyar, and Noorallah Moori, who is said to be close to the leader, Mullah Mohammed Omar.
The negotiations had been prolonged and eventually the Taliban officials had withdrawn their stipulation that the foreign fighters should be allowed to go free as long as they surrendered their weapons.
Atta Mohammed, a senior Alliance officer at the meeting, said: "We told them, 'You are safe we can transfer you to your provinces.' We had told them none of their troops would be mistreated.
"They agreed to hand over the foreigners, but they did not say how soon. We thought that the Taliban would be able to persuade them to surrender, because they are the majority and the foreigners are the minority."
Mullah Fazil had apparently said that he had authority over the al-Qa'ida as well as the Taliban forces. All would be taken from Kunduz to Mazar-i-Sharif, where the Afghans would be separated from the foreigners.
But even while the pact was being celebrated at Janadandi Fort, near Mazar, shooting started at Kunduz. According to Mohammed Daoud, another Alliance commander, it was not their men but Taliban forces who had fired on comrades trying to surrender. "They didn't know," he said. "The negotiations had finished in Mazar, but they did not know about the results. Their leaders had not yet returned to Kunduz."
The fighting soon spread, with al-Qa'ida shooting at the Alliance lines and the Alliance firing back. The Alliance started up some of their Russian-supplied tanks, which had been at rest for a while, and began driving them towards the city. An Alliance tank officer, Captain Zalmai, shouted: "We are going to take Kunduz." A soldier shouted back: "Make sure you get some of the cars in Kabul."
As the fighting continued, there were other shouted instructions from the officers. "Take the Arab prisoners, make them prisoners," a commander shouted into his two-way radios.
The familiar and dreaded noise of warplanes soon became apparent as American aircraft were called in and began attacking the Taliban's positions. Refugees poured out of Kunduz on foot, donkeys and horses, battered cars and trucks as shells exploded around them. At one point a group of burqa-clad women, with children, dived into a ditch.
Those who stopped to talk said they were fleeing the American bombing and the panic and rage of the foreign Islamist fighters. One man said 40 civilians had been killed in the air raids and he had helped to bury some of them.
Another man, called Selim, claimed that women and children had been killed when US bombs hit homes in a village outside Kunduz. "The foreign fighters are very angry and they are shooting people. We want them to go," he said.
Mahmedi, another Afghan, said: "America is bombing and people are escaping. The city is empty."Reuse content