Published on Saturday, November 24, 2001 in the Guardian of London
Restraint Urged Over Prisoners
US Criticized for 'Belligerent' Language
by Richard Norton-Taylor and Luke Harding in Mazar-i-Sharif
Senior British officials yesterday criticized "belligerent" language coming out of Washington about the fate of captured Arabs, Pakistani, and Taliban fighters, and urged restraint by Northern Alliance forces besieging Kunduz.
Donald Rumsfeld, the US defense secretary, said last week that America was "not inclined to negotiate surrenders" and that he hoped al-Qaida forces would "either be killed or taken prisoner".
He said al-Qaida fighters "getting out of the country and going off to make their mischief somewhere else is not a happy prospect". Mr Rumsfeld was reacting to attempts by some Northern Alliance leaders to negotiate a peaceful end to the siege of Kunduz, the last Taliban stronghold in the north. He said there was a limited number of US troops on the ground who could accept the surrender of pro-Taliban fighters.
British officials yesterday said his remarks sent the wrong message to the Northern Alliance. "Belligerence is not helpful," said a senior British defense source.
The International Committee of the Red Cross also said yesterday it had told the Northern Alliance it was worried about the treatment of prisoners.
Adam Roberts, professor of international relations at Oxford University and editor of Documents on the Laws of War, said Mr Rumsfeld seemed to be "sailing extremely close to the wind".
Mr Rumsfeld understandably did not want al-Qaida or Taliban fighters to leave Afghanistan with their arms, he said. What the US defense secretary had failed to say was that if they surrendered they should be treated by the Northern Alliance as prisoners of war.
A 1977 protocol to the Geneva convention makes it illegal "to order that there shall be no survivors". Prof Roberts said the 1907 Hague laws of war convention expressly forbids declarations "that no quarter shall be given".
Many of the Pakistani volunteers killed two weeks ago in a school on the outskirts of Mazar-i-Sharif had been trying to surrender, witnesses said yesterday. Local commanders said the Pakistani fighters trapped after the Taliban's rapid retreat from the city had agreed to give themselves up when American warplanes hit their compound twice.
The bombs devastated the main building. The survivors then jumped over the walls in panic. Northern Alliance forces surrounding the school also retreated in darkness and confusion. Some 200 Pakistanis were later captured, some of whom were shot dead.
Though the exact figures are not clear, workers from the International Committee of the Red Cross in Mazar-i-Sharif said at least 250 Pakistani fighters had been killed in the school, many because of American bombardment.
The Pentagon's decision to bomb the large compound was supported by the Uzbek warlord, General Abdul Rashid Dostam, but opposed by other local generals, who argued it would be more humane to allow the fighters to surrender.
On the frontline surrounding Kunduz, opposition commanders said any Arab fighters captured in battle would be executed. Asked what fate lay in store for foreign fighters, General Haider Khan, whose forces block the road south out of the city, drew his hand across his neck and smiled.
But after coaching from the Americans, opposition generals now insist that Arab prisoners will be treated according to international law. It is not clear how many Arabs will take up the invitation to surrender.
Prof Roberts said
Afghanistan was in a state of "internationalized civil war". But
even in a "pure civil war", there was a growing acceptance that
those surrendering should be treated in the first instance as
prisoners of war.