Strange stories of suicides as 'bin Laden's foreigners' refuse to surrender

War on Terrorism: Volunteers
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"Prepare to fight the foreigners." Locals stopped to listen. Battered old cars with ancient loudspeakers fixed to their roofs toured the dirt streets of Taloqan yesterday, broadcasting a call to arms.

The Northern Alliance is preparing a final push from here to capture Kunduz, the Taliban's last stronghold in the north. The Alliance claims Kunduz is now under the control of 6,000 foreign Taliban volunteers believed to be led by Osama bin Laden, who became trapped in the city as they fled the opposition's advance across the rest of the north.

But even as the soldiers departed for the front line yesterday, strange stories were emerging about the deaths of Mr bin Laden's "foreigners".

Alliance soldiers found the bodies of 40 foreign volunteers in the village of Dasht-e-Archi, kneeling in the position of prayer, each with a single bullet wound, a Northern Alliance commander said.

One of them was still alive, but severely wounded, said the commander, known as Engineer Omar, who claimed the men were Chechens. A Northern Alliance tank driver tried to approach, but the wounded man shot him dead, he said. After that, Alliance troops opened fire, killing the wounded foreigner – the only witness to what had happened.

Mr Omar claims the wounded man shot the other foreign volunteers dead as they prayed, in a suicide pact. "They would rather die than surrender," he said. But there are also fears that the Alliance may be covering up massacres of foreign volunteers by its own forces. There are other stories of suicides. Northern Alliance troops say foreign Taliban fighters have been blowing themselves up with grenades as soldiers try to capture them. Mr Omar talked about a second incident, in which Alliance fighters saw about 60 foreign fighters jump into a river near the town of Emam Sahib.

But there are also fears that Northern Alliance soldiers may be killing foreigners fighting for the Taliban. As thousands of Afghan Taliban defect to the opposition, the foreigners are fast becoming the scapegoats, blamed for setting Afghan against Afghan.

The loudspeakers announced yesterday: "If you know of any foreigners in town, hand them over." The Northern Alliance claims it has captured several foreign volunteers in hiding in Taloqan – but there is little sign of them. The Alliance claims they have been taken to a prison in another town.

Mr bin Laden's foreigners have now taken control in Kunduz, according to the Northern Alliance, which claims they are holding out against the will of Afghan Taliban commanders.

Abdul Ratur, a 50-year-old refugee who looked closer to 80, had just fled Khanabad, on the outskirts of Kunduz. He said stories that the foreigners were in control were true. "The front line is all foreigners, most of them Pakistanis. They ordered us to leave our homes," he said.

Just over a year ago, he walked down the road across the front line in the opposite direction, after the Taliban captured Taloqan and ordered him out of his home near by. Yesterday, he was going back to his old home, but we had to warn him the area had been mined. He had no belongings with him.

American jets bombed Taliban positions around Taloqan yesterday. The day before, Mr Ratur said he had seen the jets bomb a jeep with seven Taliban soldiers inside. "It was amazing. They hit it dead on," he said. "There was a bale of straw next to the jeep and it wasn't damaged at all."

Another refugee from Khanabad said the Taliban were running short of food in the Kunduz area. "They emptied a warehouse of wheat they had laid up for an emergency, and then came round demanding food from the locals, before they threw us out," he said.

The Northern Alliance is in regular contact with several Afghan Taliban commanders inside the city who want to defect, a senior Alliance commander, Pir Mohammed, said yesterday. "If the Afghan Taliban commanders come over to our side, we will offer them the best houses in Taloqan as an incentive," he said, lounging in a dusty back room, furnished only with carpets. The windows had glass panes in them – the height of Afghan luxury.

There were hopes last night that the Taliban in Kunduz would surrender – but the Alliance has already lost many troops by walking into one ambush on the false promise that a commander in the city was about to defect.

As they finished their meal at the end of the first day of Ramadan yesterday, Alliance soldiers were gathering their rocket launchers from under the restaurant tables and heading for the front line.