TALIBAN MILITIAMEN in northern Afghanistan have massacred thousands of their Shia Muslim enemies around the newly captured city of Mazar-e Sharif and there are fears that 10 Iranian diplomats and an Iranian journalist were themselves slaughtered inside their consulate in the city last month.
Reports reaching The Independent from Iran and Afghanistan speak of the mass killing of men, women and children in their homes in Zaraat, Elm Arab and Saidabad by the Sunni Muslim Taliban who are armed, paid and supported by Saudi Arabia.
News of the possible murder of the Iranian diplomats - which could, if true, provoke conflict between the Taliban and 70,000 Iranian troops and Revolutionary Guards exercising along their common border - came after two groups of residents in Mazar-e Sharif drove at speed past the ruined Iranian consulate in the city. They saw up to 20 bodies lying on the street outside and believed several were Iranian. The journalist was working for IRNA, the Iranian state news agency.
Amnesty International has accused the Taliban of killing "thousands of civilians" around Mazar-e Sharif, though other reports suggest the murderers may have been members of the Hezbi Islami, Pashtu allies of the Taliban who helped the Saudi-backed army to enter the city they were supposed to be defending. Reports from the area suggest at least one group of civilians, perhaps more than a thousand men, women and children, were thrown into a mass grave outside the town.
Another account, from Amnesty, says a group of 70 men were executed in a halal - animal killing ritual - in front of villagers near the city of Hairatan. Taliban officials have hitherto claimed no knowledge of the Iranians' fate, suggesting that the consulate was abandoned when their militia entered the city. One of their mullahs then stated that the Iranians were safe and would be produced in the Afghan city of Kandahar, closer to Iran. This appears to be untrue. Iranian sources have informed The Independent that they have the gravest fears for their citizens' fate, while Amnesty says they may have been buried in the grounds of a Mazar- e Sharif girls' school.
That the latest ferocious stage in the Afghan war appears to be between Sunni and Shia Muslims has inspired terror among the million Shias still holding out against Taliban rule in the surrounded Bamyan district of Afghanistan.
Despite denials from Tehran, Iranian aircraft are flying into the Bamyan airstrip with weapons and fuel each night. The former Russian airbase, illuminated with lights for night-flying, is under regular Taliban bombardment. Humanitarian workers who fled Afghanistan after the American missile bombardment last month fear that the Taliban will try to starve the million Shias, known in Afghanistan as Hazaris, into surrender.
Amnesty is reporting released detainees as saying that thousands of prisoners were transferred to Kandahar while others were taken in military vehicles to centres in Mazar-e Sharif for questioning about their religious identity. Many were later taken to fields outside the city for execution.
Boys as young as 12, all of the Shia faith, are said to have been imprisoned in the south-eastern city of Jalalabad while women and girls were sent to a prison camp in Sarsashi. One report says that Taliban men took young Shia women from their homes to become "maidservants" to be married to Sunni militiamen - almost precisely the same cruel tactic adopted by "Islamist" gunmen in Algeria over the past five years.
Amnesty says news of the killings "shows yet again how the Taliban disregards internationally recognised humanitarian laws of the treatment of civilians in armed conflict". Foreign governments bankrolling the Taliban "bear some responsibility for failing to rein in the Taliban's worst excesses". Though too discreet to say so, Amnesty is referring to Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and by extension, since it is the Saudis' closest Western allies, the United States.
The Taliban's hatred of Shia Muslim Iran has been all too evident in recent weeks as the militia have discovered hundreds of tons of Iranian weapons in the hands of their Hazar opponents, some still wrapped in their original Iranian military packaging.
In Tehran, the authorities have made a "strategic decision", according to The Independent's sources, that the "black Taliban" will never be allowed to rule Afghanistan alone. Iran seeks a coalition government in Kabul after ceasefire talks involving all of Afghanistan's neighbours, including Pakistan and Tajikistan.
The irony of the situation is that Iran, the country usually regarded by the Americans as the "centre of world terror", is now opposing the conservative and cruel Taliban, which is protecting Osama bin Laden - officially America's "Public Enemy Number One" - the same Taliban that is controlled by Washington's allies in Saudi Arabia.
If further provoked, Iran could attempt to spread chaos in the largely Turkmen city of Herat, whose long-standing trade links with Iran have been cut by the fighting.
There have already been reports of looting and theft in international offices in the city.
Iran's border exercises include dozens of fighter-bomber aircraft, which are believed to have crossed and recrossed the Afghan border as a warning to the Taliban.
"There will never be an Afghanistan controlled only by the Taliban," an Iranian source has told The Independent. "We will never allow that to happen."
The Taliban may prove equally stubborn.
Join our new commenting forum
Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies