Ousted president 'gave passports' to al-Qa'ida fighters

War against terror: Northern Alliance
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The Independent Online

Hundreds of Arab extremists thought to be fighting alongside Osama bin Laden were given citizenship by the former Afghan government, whose leaders are now allies of America, according to documents provided by the Taliban on Saturday.

The United States and its allies could end up dealing with a new set of Afghan leaders with their own ties to al-Qa'ida.

The documents show that at least 604 people from countries such as Algeria, Libya, Saudi Arabia and Egypt were granted Afghan citizenship in March 1993 by President Burhanuddin Rabbani. Mr Rabbani, who was ousted by the Taliban in 1996, now heads the Northern Alliance which is fighting the Taliban.

The Alliance's links with Arab extremists may complicate efforts to root out members of al-Qa'ida in Afghanistan, even if Washington succeeds in toppling the Taliban.

The hardcore of Mr bin Laden's al-Qa'ida movement are Arab militants, some of whom came to Afghanistan to fight against the Soviet invaders in the 1979-1988 war. Others are unable to return to their home countries because they are wanted for subversive activities there.

Mr bin Laden himself moved to Afghanistan in 1996, a few months before Mr Rabbani's government was ousted from Kabul. He arrived in the country from Sudan after US pressure prompted the Sudanese to ask him to leave.

Once in Afghanistan, Mr bin Laden is believed to have rallied Arab veterans of the Afghan war – both locally and elsewhere in the Islamic world – to continue their struggle as part of al-Qa'ida.

On Saturday Abdurahman Hottak, the head of the Taliban's consular department, revealed a file with papers indicating that the 604 Arabs had all been issued Afghan citizenship cards – and with them the right of residence – by the Rabbani government.

According to the documents shown by Mr Hottak, the request for granting citizenship was made in November 1992 by Mr Rabbani's interior minister, Ahmed Shah Ahmedzai.

Mr Rabbani had come to power that same year in a power-sharing agreement that had divided government ministries among the different Islamic factions which had driven the Soviet Union from Afghanistan. The Interior Ministry was given to Abdur Rasool Sayyaf, who is currently Mr Rabbani's deputy prime minister in the Afghan government-in-exile, also known as the Northern Alliance.

Mr Sayyaf was then chief of the Ittehad-e-Islami group, which had the largest number of Arab fighters in its ranks. Mr Sayyaf appointed his lieutenant, Mr Ahmedzai, to the powerful Interior Ministry post.

The file shown by the Taliban included a presidential approval bearing Mr Rabbani's signature. In addition to the 604 Arabs, Mr Hottak said Mr Rabbani's government had granted citizenship to 233 other Arabs in the first five months of his rule.

Asked to explain why so many Arabs were granted citizenship, a Northern Alliance spokesman, Dr Abdullah, said Mr Sayyaf controlled the Interior Ministry at the time and was close to the Arabs, many of whom had fought with Mr Sayyaf's faction against the Soviet Union and the pro-communist Afghan regime that collapsed in 1992.

Presumably, many of those granted citizenship and allowed to remain were former fighters in Mr Sayyaf's radical Islamic fundamentalist faction, which still plays a role in the Northern Alliance.

Mr Hottak criticised Mr Rabbani and the Northern Alliance for complaining about the presence of Arab extremists in Afghanistan when in fact they were the ones who had allowed many of the fighters to stay in the first place.

Hamid Gul, the former head of Pakistan's Inter-services Intelligence, said he believed some Northern Alliance figures still maintained close ties to Arab extremists and "someday they will turn their guns" against the American-led coalition.