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POWs killing in Mazar merits probe - Truth yet to come out from bizarre incident

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Wednesday November 28, 2001-- Ramadan 12,1422 A.H

POWs killing in Mazar merits probe

By Rahimullah Yusufzai

PESHAWAR: The massacre of hundreds of pro-Taliban prisoners over the last three days in the Qala-i-Jangi Fort in Mazar-i-Sharif, most of them becoming victims of US air strikes, have raised disturbing questions as to the conduct of this so-called war on terrorism.

The bizarre incident hasn't been fully explained by the Northern Alliance military commanders to whom these fighters had surrendered in Kunduz. Even Western reporters in the area have said the story hasn't yet been told. The US defence authorities as usual are not saying much in keeping with their military strategy. To expect Uzbek warlord Abdul Rasheed Dostum, known for his ruthlessness towards opponents, to tell the truth is like asking for the moon. Matching his ferocity are his allied commanders, Ustad Atta Muhammad who happens to be an ethnic Tajik, and Ustad Mohaqqiq, a Shi'ite Hazara. Both are on record having ordered their soldiers to kill all pro-Taliban foreign fighters.

A pertinent question is whether there was a revolt by the prisoners of war or the incident was portrayed as such to justify the US bombardment and their slaughter inside the mud-built fort. Those claiming to be aware of the situation argue that the prisoners wouldn't have surrendered to Dostum and his commanders if they were so keen on fighting till death, while defending Kunduz. Offering themselves for surrender, giving up all their heavy weapons and then staging a revolt in a heavily guarded fort doesn't appear to be a sound strategy. The prisoners, whether Afghan Taliban or their foreign comrades, knew about their uncertain future once they agreed to surrender as they had run out of options after being besieged on all sides in Kunduz and under intense day-night aerial bombing by US warplanes. It was their urge for survival that made them surrender and, therefore, it looks unconvincing that they decided to undertake this suicidal mission by revolting against their prison guards.

This could probably be the first time anywhere that jet fighters and other aircraft were used to bomb prisoners. That a superpower, which never tires of extolling its commitment to human rights employed its mighty air force to kill and maim prisoners of war is all the more deplorable. Reports from Mazar-i-Sharif on Tuesday said all 510 pro-Taliban prisoners in the Qala-i-Jangi were killed after the three-day stand-off. The Northern Alliance losses in the fighting between the prisoners and the prison guards were stated to be 100 to 150. Five Americans, apparently military advisers guiding their proxies in the Northern Alliance, were reportedly wounded when a bomb dropped by a US warplane went astray. The huge difference between the casualties on the two sides clearly explained that targeted killing of the prisoners was carried out behind the high walls of the Qala-i-Jangi.

There are already unconfirmed reports that the trouble erupted at the fort when the Northern Alliance jailers started separating foreigners such as Arabs, Chechens and Pakistanis from the Afghan Taliban. Some reports even suggested that it was a prelude to eliminate all the foreign pro-Taliban fighters or that a few of them were shot dead there and then. There is a feeling here among pro-Taliban circles that the prisoners were provoked to such an extent that they decided to retaliate even at the risk of losing their lives. It is said that at this stage some of the more determined prisoners snatched guns from the prison guards and a fight ensued. As has been the case until now in this lopsided US war on Afghanistan, the Northern Alliance had to request aerial strikes by the Americans to enable its fighters to overcome the Taliban resistance. This was yet another affirmation of the fact that the Northern Alliance wouldn't have made any headway in its battle against the Taliban without the US backing.

The death of Commander Syed Hamid, who had joined the Taliban after they captured Mazar-i-Sharif from Dostum in 1998, in the first incident following the prisoners' uprising has also raised questions. Was he eliminated to punish him for betraying Dostum or did he perish at the hands of Taliban who didn't expect him to rejoin the Northern Alliance. Also killed was Mazar-i-Sharif's new police head Nadir Ali, a member of Ustad Mohaqqiq's Shi'ite Hezb-i-Wahdat.

The meaningful statement given earlier by the US Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, in which he said the foreign fighters should either be killed or captured rather than being given a safe passage, has assumed added importance in the wake of the massacre of the pro-Taliban prisoners. It would indeed have been difficult to prove the guilt or connection of these fighters to Osama bin Laden's al-Qaeda in a court of law. Therefore, eliminating them was a better option than keeping them prisoners and convicting them after a long legal process. The murder of the prisoners also had political advantages. Killing the Chechens among the prisoners would appease Russia while the elimination of the Pakistanis and Kashmiris would surely bring smiles on the faces of India's leaders. Similarly, the murder of Uzbek Islamists would be hailed in Tashkent by Uzbekistan's president Islam Karimov. His authoritarian regime appears set to further curtail any freedom still enjoyed by his hapless Uzbek subjects now that Juma Namagani, leader of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, is believed to have died while fighting for the Taliban in the recent battle for Mazar-i-Sharif.

The death of hundreds of prisoners in Qala-i-Jangi merits a proper probe. This is the second time during the past two weeks that Mazar-i-Sharif has witnessed killings at such a large scale and in such a cold-blooded manner. Up to 900 Taliban and their supporters, including over 100 Pakistanis, were massacred when Dostum, Ustad Atta and Mohaqqiq captured the city with active military assistance from the US, Britain, Russia, Iran, India, Turkey and Uzbekistan. Besides Dostum and his commanders, these countries also bear responsibility for some of these atrocities. Would the UN or some of the human rights groups show courage and order an investigation into the Qala-i-Jangi incident and last week's Mazar-i-Sharif massacres? If they cannot do so, one would advice them to stop talking about human rights in future.

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