KABUL, Nov 25: The dramatic two-week siege of Kunduz, the final Taliban bastion in northern Afghanistan, was drawing to a close on Sunday with mass surrenders by the Taliban and rival opposition commanders striking a deal on who will control the coveted city.
Up to 100 non-Afghan Taliban prisoners of war were reported dead at a Mazar-i-Sharif jail after staging a bloody uprising on Sunday, witnesses in the city west of Kunduz said.
Details were sketchy, but the incident came after acting president Burhanuddin Rabbani pledged that Alliance forces would not harm surrendering foreigners — mostly Pakistanis, Arabs and Chechens linked to Osama bin Laden’s Al Qaeda network — who defended Kunduz alongside the Afghan Taliban.
“Although they have committed some war crimes in Afghanistan they come under the general amnesty that we have declared and they are pardoned if they put their guns down,” Rabbani said.
Uzbek warlord Abdul Rashid Dostam and his main force, reported to have taken control of Kunduz early on Sunday, were poised three kms to the west to allow ethnic Tajik forces the honour of entering the city first, a Tajik commander said.
“Following a meeting of the military chiefs of the northern provinces, I have been designated the future governor of Kunduz and I must be the first to enter the city,” explained Commander Mohammad Daoud.
He was speaking to reporters in Khanabad hours after his troops swept through the town 20 kms east of Kunduz without firing a shot.
The fall of Kunduz will leave the Taliban with Kandahar, their spiritual home, as the only large city under their control; they also hold a few mainly desert provinces in southern Afghanistan’s ethnic Pakhtoon heartland.
Before a planned UN conference on Tuesday in Bonn to discuss the political future of Afghanistan, Rabbani opened the door for the eventual participation “as individuals” of some Taliban members in a future interim government.
The Pakistan-based Afghan Islamic Press (AIP) news agency reported that troops loyal to Dostam seized control of Kunduz early on Sunday after 2,500 of his men moved into the city overnight.
Dostam sent a top officer into the commercial and industrial city of 30,000 to dismantle militia defences and ship Taliban and Al Qaeda prisoners west to his headquarters in Mazar-i-Sharif, AIP said.
Scores of foreign fighters were among 400 to 600 prisoners of war who died in the violent uprising at the Mazar-i-Sharif jail where they are being held, an interpreter who was near the prison at the time of the revolt said.
He said POWs disarmed their guards after killing a senior Alliance commander with a hand grenade; a vicious gunbattle ensued and “a lot of people, perhaps a hundred” were killed.
Another Northern Alliance commander, Sadreddin, said Khanabad fell to his forces on Sunday without a fight.
“We entered the town from four directions and encountered no resistance,” he said.
Some 3,000 to 9,000 Taliban troops, around a third of them foreigners, entrenched themselves in Kunduz after the November 11 fall of Mazar-i-Sharif, resisting the ensuing Alliance blitz across the north, west and center of the country.
Some 700 Afghan and 600 foreign Taliban surrendered to the Alliance on Saturday — but not without incident.
Rabbani said two surrendering Chechens hurled a grenade at Alliance officers on Saturday, killing one and wounding another, in the second incident of its kind in Kunduz on the same day.
Britain’s ITV news network said a Taliban soldier blew himself and two Alliance fighters up with a hand grenade in a suicide attack that also wounded a commander and an ITV journalist.
Alliance forces in Maidan Shar, the scene of heavy fighting near Kabul over the past three days, said peace returned to the area with the surrender on Sunday of 200 holdouts, who denied however that they had any ties with the Taliban.
The Alliance said up to 2,000 Taliban fighters were entrenched in the area when fighting erupted on Thursday, but a regional commander said it was all “a local problem — everybody who had a gun came out to fight.”
“They wanted to defend their families, they thought they would be killed,” he said. “It was not because they were supporters of Mullah Omar. Now we are together, we want to be at peace.”
Rabbani told a press conference here that Taliban who “are not criminals” could take part in a future Afghan administration.
“Taliban authorities and officials can participate in the interim government as individuals, not as the Taliban party, if they are selected through the... loya jirga,” he said.
Hundreds of Pakhtoons meeting in Attock asked for a multinational peacekeeping force to restore order in the country.
The meeting convened by the Ahmedzai, Afghanistan’s largest Pakhtoon tribe, also called for a demilitarized Kabul and urged delegates to the Bonn conference to fulfil their “historical responsibility.”
They also dangled the promise of an amnesty to persuade the Taliban to surrender Kandahar peacefully, saying they would send a delegation to talk to militia commanders “and maybe Mullah Omar” to avert a bloodbath.
“They should come to the negotiating table,” a spokesman for the meeting said. “It is a chance to save themselves, save the country and save innocent people.”
“Taliban, especially moderate Taliban, should be given an amnesty,” he said. “They should give up their guns and go back to their villages.
As far as the “foreign terrorists” are concerned, the spokesman said, “it is up to the world community to decide.”
Rabbani said the Alliance would send an 11-member delegation — including one woman — to Bonn, where a total of 21 people have been invited.
The hardcore foreign element of the Taliban force, mostly recruited through Al Qaeda, were reported to have executed dozens of Afghan colleagues in Kunduz to prevent them surrendering.
A fresh sighting of Osama bin Laden — at a fortified encampment 56 kms southwest of Jalalabad — was reported on Sunday by the New York Times, quoting a Kabul official.
US ADVISER KILLED: A US adviser was killed on Sunday in a shootout in Mazar-i-Sharif during a prisoners’ revolt by hundreds of surrendering foreign Taliban forces, witnesses said.
There was no independent confirmation of the death, which could be the first combat casualty suffered by the United States in their seven-week-old military offensive.
US defence officials in Washington denied any serviceman had been killed but did not directly address whether another category of US personnel might have been involved. —AFP/Reuters