Stray bomb injures US soldiers

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The Independent Online

A fierce battle involving British and US special forces continued to rage around a mud–walled fortress in northern Afghanistan, which is being held by prisoners loyal to Osama bin Laden and said to be fighting to the death. Five US soliders were seriously injured by a stray US bomb after calling in air support, said the Pentagon.

Hundreds of the prisoners were killed yesterday in fighting and US air strikes after they pulled weapons from their tunics and attacked their outnumbered guards, according to the Pentagon and the Northern Alliance.

Both the Pentagon and the alliance had declared last night that the uprising was over, but alliance reinforcements poured into the fortress today as US planes streaked overhead and the prisoners, trapped around a tower, fought with rocket–propelled grenades and mortars they had raided from an ammunition warehouse.

"They're fighting until death. For this reason it has continued," said Alam, an alliance commander outside the fort coordinating attacks with a walkie–talkie. "They won't hand themselves over alive."

By nightfall, Alam said, 2,000 alliance troops were inside the sprawling, 18th–century fortress, 10 miles west of the northern city of Mazar–i–Sharif. He said more were on their way.

In the late afternoon, six US soldiers in desert camouflage stopped alongside Alam. One got out to hug Alam and ask him in a local language who was in charge in the fort. He got back in the van and sped off toward the fortress.

The death toll among the prisoners wasnot known but appeared high. The alliance said most of the prisoners in the fortress were killed, and estimates of how many had been there ran from 300 to as high as 800.

"They were all killed and very few were arrested," alliance spokesman Zaher Wahadat said.

Alim Razim, an adviser to the fortress' commander Gen. Rashid Dostum, 40 Northern Alliance troops were killed in the fighting. He added that any prisoners still alive wouldn't be for long.

"Those who are left over will be dead," he said. "None of them can escape."

At one point, a group of soldiers could be seen running into one part of the fort under the cover of machine–gun fire. Fifteen minutes later, mortar shells began to explode and they made a hasty retreat.

The prisoners, mostly Arabs, Chechens and Pakistanis, surrendered on Saturday from the besieged city of Kunduz and were being held under the terms of a surrender deal to determine their ties to bin Laden's al–Qa'da network.

US military officials said the prisoners smuggled weapons under their tunics and seized an ammunitions depot to do battle with their captors. After several hours, about 500 alliance reinforcements arrived, backed by US air strikes.

Alex Perry, a journalist for Time magazine who was inside the fort during the uprising, said 800 people were involved in the fighting, and that an American soldier was killed.

"There were two American soldiers inside the fort: one of whom was disarmed and killed – he was called Mike," Mr Perry reported on the website Time.com.

Footage taken by a crew from Germany's ARD television network also showed a U.S. special forces soldier inside telling his commanders he believed an American had been killed.

Alam, indicating a large hole in the fortress' wall, also said a US bomb had missed its target, hitting the area of the fortress where the alliance troops were based. He said it killed six alliance fighters and one American.

Pentagon spokesman Marine Lt. Col. David Lapan said no US military personnel were killed in the uprising.

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