Taliban fleeing Kunduz

Defectors join northern alliance

Posted: Sunday, November 25, 2001

BANGI, Afghanistan -- A trickle of surrendering Taliban became a flood Saturday, and those laying down arms were greeted like brothers by northern alliance fighters besieging Kunduz. It was unclear whether a hard core of foreigners loyal to Osama bin Laden would opt to fight to the finish.

By nightfall Saturday, alliance officials said more than 1,100 Taliban and foreign fighters -- mostly Arabs, Chechens and Pakistanis -- had surrendered under a deal negotiated with the Islamic militia's senior commanders. Some Taliban fighters crossed the front and promptly joined the alliance.

However, thousands of other fighters were believed still in the city, including members of bin Laden's al-Qaida terrorist network. When the siege began Nov. 12, alliance commanders estimated about 10,000 Taliban and 3,000 foreigners were defending the city -- the last Taliban stronghold in northern Afghanistan.

The surrenders did not always go smoothly.

In the alliance-held northern city of Mazar-e-Sharif, a prisoner awaiting a search detonated a hand grenade, killing himself and two other Taliban soldiers and seriously injuring an alliance officer, according to Britain's ITN News and CNN.

ITN reporter Andrea Catherwood, who was hit in the knee with shrapnel, said the attacker was among some 500 foreign fighters, mostly from Pakistan, who had driven overnight from Kunduz across the desert and were met by a key northern alliance commander, Rashid Dostum.

''They were disarmed, or so we thought. A lot of heavy arms were taken away in a truck,'' she said.

A former Taliban deputy interior minister who defected -- the most senior Taliban defector thus far -- on Saturday held a news conference to say he blamed bin Laden and his foreign fighters as well as hard-line Taliban for bringing on the U.S-led war.

''I have being saying for a long time that the foreigners have to leave our country, that they have plans of their own and are destroying our country,'' Mullah Mohammed Khaqzar said in Kabul.

Khaqzar said he warned Taliban supreme leader Mohammed Omar that he should ''tell the terrorists to leave'' or they ''would destroy our country.'' But Omar fell under the influence of bin Laden, he said.

Under the surrender agreement near Kunduz, Afghan Taliban fighters are guaranteed safe passage out of the city but the foreigners will be arrested pending investigation into possible ties to bin Laden.

The United States had strongly opposed any agreement that would allow the foreign fighters to go free. President Bush launched airstrikes against Afghanistan on Oct. 7 after the Taliban refused to hand over bin Laden for his alleged role in the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

On Saturday, U.S. jets bombed an area near the eastern city of Jalalabad, where bin Laden maintained camps. Anti-Taliban officials in the area said bin Laden was near Jalalabad when the bombing campaign began and may be hiding near his Tora Bora camp in the mountains.

Alliance commanders had expected the surrender of Kunduz to take place this weekend -- and as the day passed, more and more Taliban fighters appeared along front line positions to give themselves up.

Along the eastern front, alliance soldiers shouted ''welcome'' and embraced and kissed Taliban fighters after they rolled across the Bangi bridge in a convoy of tanks, armored personnel carriers and even taxis -- smeared with mud and dust to camouflage them against prowling U.S. jets.

''We gave up to the northern alliance,'' said a smiling Taliban fighter, Shah Mahmoud. ''They are our brothers, and this is our country. The foreigners will never surrender, I think.''

Mahmoud, his Taliban-issued Kalashnikov still slung over his shoulder, remained at the front to join the fight against the hard core Taliban and al-Qaida holdouts.

On Friday, Dostum said he expected Kunduz to surrender by the end of the weekend. In preparation, alliance troops moved Saturday within 1.5 miles of the city limits, spokesman Ashraf Nadeem said by satellite telephone.

''It has almost collapsed,'' Nadeem said of Kunduz.

In other developments Saturday:

n At least eight U.S. bombs exploded on Pakistani territory during a raid on Taliban positions along the mountainous frontier with Afghanistan, witnesses and local officials said. There were no deaths or injuries on the Pakistan side but at least 13 Afghans were killed and two others injured on their side of the border, a local resident said. The reports could not be independently confirmed and the Pentagon had no immediate comment.

n Afghan factions meeting in Germany on Tuesday will try to set up a 15-member council as the basis for a new interim government, German special envoy Hans-Joachim Daerr said. The meeting is considered the first step toward rebuilding Afghanistan after more than 20 years of war.

n Thousands of mourners packed the cathedral in Catania, Sicily, for the funeral of Italian journalist Maria Grazia Cutuli who was killed Monday along with three colleagues on the road from Jalalabad to Kabul.

n A Pakistani official who spoke on condition of anonymity said about 800 U.S. troops were in Pakistan for ''offensive operations'' against the Taliban and al-Qaida. Pakistan initially said U.S. troops were on its soil only for search and rescue operations.

Following summary executions allegedly committed by the northern alliance in Mazar-e-Sharif and Kabul, foreigners fighters in Kunduz had insisted on security guarantees. Dostum promised they would be protected and tried before Islamic courts in Afghanistan.

Foreign fighters were keen to surrender to Dostum, a former general in the pro-Communist Afghan army, rather than fall into the hands of Shiite Muslims in the alliance. Many of the Shiites were seeking revenge for massacres committed by the Taliban and its allies against members of their religious minority.

Afghan Taliban defectors received a warmer reception. They poured out of Kunduz atop tanks, pickup trucks and taxis -- the barrels of their rifles sticking out of the windows.

One group of 70 men surrendered with their commander, Mullah Bakhi, according to alliance spokesman Nadeem.

Despite the euphoria, alliance commanders prepared to do battle if hard-liners refused to give up.

''Bring up the tanks and troops to go into Kunduz,'' alliance Gen. Daoud Khan shouted at his fighters. ''If the foreigners fight you, fight.'' Tanks, multiple rocket launchers and truckloads of soldiers rolled forward, horns blaring.

Pakistan's president, Gen. Pervez Musharraf, has repeatedly appealed to the United States and Britain to prevent massacres of Pakistani fighters, many of whom went to Afghanistan after the bombing campaign began. Khan claimed Pakistani fighters fled Kunduz by plane. A spokesman for the U.S. military -- which controls Afghanistan's airspace -- said there was nothing to indicate any such evacuation.

Pakistan, which supports the U.S.-led war on terrorism, denied that any Pakistani plane had flown into Afghanistan since the start of the air campaign.

Although the alliance controls most of Afghanistan, pockets of resistance remain. Fighting continued in the village of Maidan Shahr near Kabul, and reportedly in Helmand province, one of the few areas under the Islamic militia's control.

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