Three-day fight for fortress leaves hundreds dead

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The Independent Online

The fierce three-day battle at the fortress prison of Qala-i-Jangi ended yesterday with the death of up to 450 Taliban and al-Qa'ida prisoners who had tried to fight their way out.

By yesterday evening the guns had fallen silent, but dozens of bodies lying across a mud courtyard, some dismembered, were evidence of the desperate fighting that had taken place.

Most of those killed had been foreign fighters – mainly Pakistanis, but also Chechens, Arabs and Uzbeks.

The exact fate ofTahir Uldosh – one of the leaders of the militant Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, who was believed to have led the revolt – remained unclear.

The fighting had begun at the 19th-century fort, which belongs to the Northern Alliance commander, General Abdul Rashid Dostum, after a Chechen prisoner killed himself. An Alliance officer had then detonated a grenade. Soon afterwards, some of the prisoners had seized machine guns and mortars from their guards. Others had looted the fort's weapons store and armed themselves with mortars and rocket launchers.

General Dostum's political adviser, Ali Razim, said with simple satisfaction: "The situation is completely under control. All of them have been killed." Mr Razim said all resistance had ceased after the Alliance forces captured the last of the mortars that the prisoners had taken.

The Alliance said that about 40 of their men had died in the fighting and about 100 had been injured.

Some al-Qa'ida prisoners had managed to escape from the fort and had fled a short distance before they were killed. Three dead Pakistanis were found in a ditch. One of them, according to villagers, appeared to have been strangled with a piece of rope. A local man pickedthe body up by the clothing and began to kick it while another posed over it with a knife.

There had been a few British soldiers present at the fort when the uprising started. Some CIA operatives were also there to interrogate the al-Qa'ida prisoners. One of them is believed to have been killed.

British special forces were said to have played a key role in quelling the battle. Members of the SAS and United States special forces had taken charge after the Northern Alliance troops appeared to be unable to hold the foreign fighters back.

After organising a counter-attack, the British and US "advisers" had called for US air strikes on the compound of the fort. One of the missiles went astray, killing four Northern Alliance fighters and injuring five Americans.

A British defence source yesterday said the decision to call in the air strikes was reasonable because the prisoners had been heavily armed.

British special forces are also active in the south of Afghanistan, where the Taliban are making their last stand at Kandahar.

While more US marines arrive at the recently secured airports in the area, American and British undercover soldiers have been helping Pashtuns seize more territory from the Taliban by organising repeated air raids followed by ground attacks using the opposition forces.

In the more forward positions, the British and American forces have stayed behind to guard against Taliban counter-attacks. One such attack, at Takhteh Pol, was quelled when the special forces called in combat helicopters.

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