Abdul Ali Mazari, the most important leader of the Shia Muslim minority in Afghanistan, was reported dead yesterday after being taken prisoner by the Taliban, the armed movement of Sunni Muslim students which has swept to the outskirts of Kabul.
Both the Taliban and the government of President Burhanuddin Rabbani said Mr Mazari, leader of Hizbe Wahadat, the main Shia faction, was dead, but accounts of how he died varied widely. Government commanders monitoring the Taliban's communications said he died in a helicopter crash.
A Taliban spokesman claimed, however, that Mr Mazari had snatched a weapon from one of his guards on board the helicopter and wounded the pilot, forcing him to make an emergency landing. The Shia leader, he said, had killed six of his captors before being shot dead. But a Western correspondent said a frightened-looking Mr Mazari had had his hands and feet bound when he saw him at the Taliban's base at Charasyab, south of Kabul, on Saturday.
Whatever the circumstances of Mr Mazari's death, it is sure to anger Iran, Hizbe Wahadat's main backer. The Shia leader, while loosely allied with Hizbe Islami, led by Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, had stayed out of most of the fighting between Mr Hekmatyar's movement and government forces on Tehran's advice. Hizbe Wahadat agreed to withdraw from its stronghold, the Karte Se district of Kabul, and hand its positions over to the Taliban, but this provoked a government attack which is thought to have caused heavy loss of life.
The Taliban's first defeat in its whirlwind campaign to rid Afghanistan of "ungodly" warlords may once again delay UN-mediated attempts to reach a peace settlement. President Rabbani was reported at the weekend to have agreed to step down next month in favour of prominent Afghans, but similar agreements have broken down several times in the past.
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