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The day time ran out for Najibullah borrowed time runs out

From his shelter inside the United Nations compound in Kabul, the late Afghan president, Najibullah, could hear his executioners coming closer. Every rocket and artillery barrage that fell during the Taliban militia's conquest of Kabul overnight yesterday was like the footsteps of an approaching hangman.

At 3am, Najibullah, the last Communist ruler of Afghan- istan, realised the guards outside his sanctuary had deserted their posts. He radioed frantically to another UN building for help. Radio silence was his only reply. Soon after, fighters of the Islamic militia known as Taliban burst into the compound where Najibullah had lived as a virtual prisoner for the past four-and-a-half years.

Najibullah, 49, was dragged out, beaten, shot dead, and hung from a traffic kiosk near the palace where for six years he presided over the killing and torture of thousands of Afghans opposed to his Marxist regime.

His murder by the Taliban militia, who now control Kabul and almost all of the country, brings the last chapter of the 1979 Soviet invasion to a grisly end. Groomed by the Kremlin, Najibullah was put in charge of security during the pro-Soviet rule of Babrak Karmal, who was replaced in 1986 byNajibullah.

Nicknamed "the Ox" because of his wrestler's build, Najibullah survived in power by discarding hard-line Communism and by skillfully pitting one Afghan tribe against another.

The mistake that probably cost him his life was relying on the UN. As the Islamic mujahedin closed in on Kabul in April 1992, he was persuaded by a UN envoy to resign. This undermined Najibullah's support in the army, and his commanders surrendered. The UN envoy tried to smuggle Najibullah to safety. But he was recognised at the airport gates and refused exit. Najibullah then fled to a UN compound in Kabul where, until yesterday, he stayed.

The government of Burhan-uddin Rabbani, which emerged from the chaos after Najibullah's fall, did not arrest him since he was officially living under UN protection. But the niceties of UN conventions were ignored by the avenging Taliban. The new lords of Kabul have vowed to mete out the same fate to Mr Rabbani - who fled Kabul yesterday - if they catch him.

Obituary, page 16